Well, dang, I just realized that I managed to see three major dance shows in the past month! Woo-whee!!!
First there was Ailey II.
And most recently State Street Ballet’s The Secret Garden.
I’d never heard of State Street Ballet before. They’re from Santa Barbara, CA (so a few thousand miles from me) which would explain why I’ve never heard of them, and based on their schedule I’d guess they’re a pretty small company.
But there was NOTHING small about this performance. No way.
I was excited to see this mainly because, well, A) duh, it’s professional ballet near me, but B) because The Secret Garden was (okay, IS) one of my favorite books. It was one of the first real chapter books I read as a kid and, being kind of a cynical kid who tended to enjoy my own company more than that of most of my peers, I felt a connection to Mary Lennox, the main character. And I loved the storyline with its tragedies and mysteries and the blossoming of all the main characters.
The fact that someone decided to turn this into a ballet, well, I had to see it. And if you get a chance, you should see it.
This was the first contemporary story ballet I’ve ever seen. Er, maybe that’s not entirely true. I saw New York Theatre Ballet perform Alice in Wonderland a couple years ago. But that was a short work, not a full ballet like this was.
The sets… oh the sets! The backdrops were all computer animated. For example, the part where Mary journeys from India to England the backdrop showed trains moving through the countryside. This made the scene much more dynamic than if she had just been dancing in front of a still picture of a train. Not all the backdrops were animated to that degree, but it gives you an idea of how they used the backdrops to add to the scenes. Some of it was a little wonky, mostly when they had silhouettes of dancers in the backdrop… that stuff looked a little goofy and jumpy to me. The idea was good, but the execution could use some work. The rest of the animation worked quite well, though.
The music was original and I believe was composed by the choreographer’s husband. It was instrumental but more Windham Hill than symphony orchestra and it included various sound effects such as clock-ticking or birdsong to add to the overall effect.
The costumes were incredible! The human characters were dressed in appropriate, period attire. Mary in her dress, the men in vests and pants, the servants in their gray uniforms. But then there were non-human roles: the maze, vines, trees, flowers. And those were such ethereal, stunning creations. Some of them looked challenging to dance in, but for the most part the dancers seemed to handle them quite well and it really added to the overall effect.
The dancing itself was exquisitely contemporary. I love classical ballet and modern, but the two techniques are quite different. Ballet tends to be more upright and the focus of the action is up, whereas modern has a lot of contractions and feels very grounded. The combination of the two has got to be tricky for the dancer (sadly I haven’t been able to experience trying to dance it), but they pulled it off almost flawlessly.
I loved that the range of emotions was represented. In the beginning Mary’s feelings of loss as she realizes she has been orphaned and gets shipped to England are palpable, but then it shifts to the shenanigans of the servants in the manor house which was out and out hilarious. When Archibald (the uncle) dances with the spirit of his deceased wife you can’t help but feel heartbroken with him.
As for the plot, well, I’m that person who refuses to watch movies based on books because I get mad when they don’t follow the plotline closely enough. I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the elements of the original story were there. As a ballet the intricacies obviously can’t be fully played out, so I understand dropping some of the detail. I did get annoyed that they downplayed or altogether excluded certain characters, though. There was a dancer credited to the role of Martha, but I couldn’t distinguish her from the other female servants aside from a tiny scene where she hands Mary the skipping-rope. Ben (the gardener) was completely missing and he played a very significant role in the book. There was a comment in the synopsis about the growing love between Dickon and Mary, which, c’mon, I doubt Frances Hodgson Burnett was thinking romance when she wrote this, but thankfully on stage it came across as innocently as intended.
All in all I had a wonderful time. I’d love to see more choreography by Josie Walsh and, heck, more new story ballets. The classics are great and I’m glad we keep them alive, but I feel like there are so many more stories waiting to be danced, and so often contemporary works are kept short, abstract, minimal costuming and set design, etc. These are cool, but I think it serves to keep a lot of people away from dance because they just don’t get it. Story ballets play a unique role and we need to nurture this genre as much as we need to keep the classics alive. Just my $0.02!
Anyway, for those of you who may not get a chance to see this live any time soon, there’s a great video on YouTube that will give you a taste of what it’s all about.