By Kay Kipling
I don’t often write about ballet performances—I tend to stick to the more strictly theatrical—but I couldn’t help but be tempted by the Sarasota Ballet’s premiere of The Secret Garden, now in its final performances of the summer at the FSU Center for Performing Arts.
For one thing, The Secret Garden is one of those books you read as a child that lodges itself permanently inside your memory, with its tale of a lonely, unhappy young girl who arrives at her uncle’s forbidding, cold home, only to eventually discover a hidden garden and make friends with both her sickly cousin and a servant boy with a gift for training animals. The piece has been adapted into films, a Broadway musical and now, courtesy of the Sarasota Ballet and choreographer Will Tuckett, into this highly creative ballet.
The production starts with a gray and black palette, as an unsmiling Mary Lennox (Jessica Cohen) comes to England after the death of her parents to live with her haunted uncle (Jamie Carter). The set and design of The Secret Garden, by Tim Meacock, is indeed at first gloomy and dark, and the attitude of the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock (Kate Honea), about as warm and welcoming as a cobra’s.
But as we know, the power and magic of nature and love can perform miracles, and gradually the iciness of the Craven estate and the hearts that live within gives way before the light and sunshine of the garden, and love. That transformation is, naturally, represented in Tuckett’s choreography as well, and in the score by Jeremy Holland-Smith; the range moves from urgent to sprightly to serene as called for by the story.
While the performances of the dancers, especially Cohen, a lovely Mary, and Ricardo Graziano, an appealing and athletic Dickon, convey much of that story, the audience is aided by the narration of actor Edward French, whose rhyming lines (from librettist Alasdair Middleton) not only express action and dialogue but the inner thoughts of the characters. And the production gets a charming boost from the addition of animal puppets, designed by Toby Olie (love that fox), as extra features of the garden.
Further praise goes to Honea as the intimidating Medlock, Victoria Hulland as Mr. Craven’s late wife and the cause of his grief, Alex Harrison as Colin (It must be challenging for a dance to have to hobble) and Juan Gil as the “bad doctor” Webster, bringing the necessary air of villainy to the piece with some bravura moves.
If you can’t make a visit to The Secret Garden this weekend, the ballet will reprise the piece Oct. 24-26; for tickets call 359-0099 ext. 101 or go to sarasotaballet.org.