Josie Walsh couldn’t stop thinking about flowers. When State Street Ballet (SSB) director Rodney Gustafson approached the L.A.-based choreographer last year to commission a new work, she told him on an impulse that she wanted to do The Secret Garden. Gustafson agreed, and Walsh set to work — only to realize that 2011 marked the book’s centennial. It was serendipity.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel tells the story of Mary Lennox, a spoiled, unhappy child who is orphaned when a cholera epidemic in India kills her parents. She is sent to live at her uncle’s English manor house, where she discovers a hidden garden, and begins to unearth family secrets. It’s an appealing story to Walsh, who sees in the symbol of a garden the choreographic potential for both sensual beauty and transformation.
Walsh, along with her composer husband, Paul Rivera Jr., directs Myokyo Productions, a commercial and contemporary performance company known for its dynamic rock ballets, which incorporate everything from hip-hop and aerial dance to toe shoes and tutus. As a classically trained dancer who performed for a time with the Joffrey and Zurich Ballets, Walsh has a strong formal foundation; as the daughter of two screenwriters, she’s familiar with the entertainment industry, and she’s adept at navigating the territory between the two worlds. That makes her a good choice for SSB, a company with a growing reputation for bringing strong classical technique to accessible, crowd-pleasing performances.
“I’ve been preoccupied lately with the idea of the garden as an ecosystem, and the metaphor of a flower blooming and dying,” Walsh explained at a recent interview at SSB’s studios, where she has been in residency since early February. On the table in front of her, she laid out the evidence of that preoccupation: notebooks filled with sketches and descriptions of movement passages, carefully inscribed in purple, pink, and green ink. “I’m on my third Secret Garden notebook already,” she told me, dropping to a whisper to confide, “I choreograph while I drive, with the notebook in my lap.”
The commercial world tends to demand quick turnarounds, so for Walsh, a whole month to get a new show up and running feels spacious. On the other hand, she’s chosen a very ambitious production. In addition to creating a brand-new, full-length ballet and setting it on a cast of 18 dancers, she’s also co-creating the musical score with her husband, overseeing costume design, and coordinating with Santa Barbara photographer David Bazemore to create the set: a series of digital animations and photo montages that will be projected onto a 50-foot screen.
At the time of writing, costume design was still in process, but the word is that A. Christina Giannini’s creations will blend period elements with contemporary styles. The music, too, is a blend of influences: There are playful, vaudevillian sections; dark, industrial passages; and sections of melodic guitar and strings. The dance itself will reflect this eclectic mix of lyricism and explosive power, romanticism, and modernity. “It’s a metaphorical ballet,” Walsh explained. “It’s not a historical rendition of a period piece.” To that end, she has challenged SSB dancers to embrace her athletic style — expect to see dancers under the influence of gravity, as well as weightlessness. Longtime SSB fans will recognize Ryan Camou in the role of Colin Craven, the little boy Mary befriends at her uncle’s manor. Season Winquest, a relative newcomer to the company, will dance the role of Mary.
For Gustafson, the story of The Secret Garden has special resonance. “I lost my dad when I was 3,” he explained. “When I was growing up, I always felt weird when other kids asked, ‘What does your dad do?’” In doing research for this show, Gustafson discovered Hospice of Santa Barbara’s I Have a Friend program, which pairs children who have lost parents with trained adult mentors who experienced the same loss in their early lives. He plans to bring participants from the program in to the studio to watch the rehearsal process and talk to the dancers, and to offer them free tickets to see the production. Like the book on which it’s based, this is a ballet meant for all ages. As Walsh put it, “It’s the story of the human predicament, and the story of love — in all its manifestations.”
State Street Ballet performs The Secret Garden at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Saturday, February 25, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, February 26, at 2 p.m. For tickets, call (805) 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org. To learn more about the company, visit statestreetballet.com.