This ‘Garden’ is a tough row to hoe

Members of the Festival Ballet Theatre rehearse for an upcoming show, "The Secret Garden," on Saturday.
(KEVIN CHANG, HB Independent)

Tyler Donatelli began dancing at Southland Ballet Academy when she was five years old. Now, she will take on her biggest task yet: portraying a selfish, ill-tempered 10-year-old.

Tyler, a Huntington Beach resident, will play the lead role of Mary Lennox in Festival Ballet Theatre’s production of “The Secret Garden” on Sunday.

“It’s not a classical ballet, so stepping out of my comfort zone to do different movement has been the hardest part,” the 16-year-old said.

Tyler is one of 17 dancers who will breathe new life into the ballet adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

The original work includes cutting-edge choreography and stage direction by Josie Walsh performed by Southland Ballet students and company dancers ages 16 to 30.

“‘Secret Garden’ is a very challenging story, and that’s why it’s not done that often in ballets,” Walsh said. “It’s very emotional, and it’s the story of hope and transformation through incredible loss.”

Earlier this year, State Street Ballet Company commissioned Walsh to create “Secret Garden,” which had its world premiere in February at the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara.

Salwa Rizkalla, founder of Southland Ballet, asked Walsh to adapt the work for her company.

“It’s actually a two-act, 90-minute ballet, but Salwa asked me if I could do it in one act,” Walsh said. “I didn’t think I could, but I managed to tell a very intense story in a one-act ballet.”

The dramatic contemporary ballet en pointe now runs 60 minutes and features an original cinematic-style score by Walsh’s husband, Paul Rivera Jr., who collaborated with his wife on the project.

“I totally count my blessings working with my husband,” she said. “I cant imagine creating a full-length ballet, just searching everywhere for random music and just splicing it together, because there needs to be a continuity.”

The production also showcases David Bazemore’s multimedia scenic design, which uses green-screen technology to project realistic visuals on a virtual set.

“It’s very visceral,” Walsh said. “You have so much opportunity with technology to push the story along in a different way than you can with just lights and backdrops.”

In late August, the dancers began weekend rehearsals at Southland Ballet Academy in Fountain Valley, Walsh said.

“The vision was to get these dancers to really embrace this [contemporary] movement and not look like it’s foreign to them, so there is an element of teaching,” Walsh said.

“But, the dancers are doing amazingly well,” she continued. “It comes with the confidence of the steps, the choreography, the timing, and spacing. Their personalities and style are shining through now.”

Tyler will be joined by professional Festival Ballet company dancers in select leading roles.

A.J. Abrams will play Archibald Craven alongside Costa Mesa resident Tara Gusman, who will portray his long-lost wife Lilly.

“They are so emotional,” Walsh said of the pair. “What I love about those two is their emotions come first. They don’t come after they are comfortable with the steps; they come first. They’re really dynamic.”

Jason Glover, who was featured in the top eight in season five of “So You Think You Can Dance,” will portray Colin.

“They [the company dancers] just have the layer of emotion that you can feel that you can’t put your finger on,” Walsh said. “And, if I didn’t have that maturity, it would be really hard with this story, because it definitely needs that.”

Aside from “Secret Garden,” program highlights include the following: the world premiere of “SAX-TET” by choreographer Jeroen Verbruggen, “Lemuria” by choreographer Lillian Bareito, and Marius Petipa’s “Dance of the Animated Frescoes” from “The Little Humpbacked Horse.”

If You Go

What: Festival Ballet Theatre presents “The Secret Garden & Mixed Repertoire”

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

Cost: $35 for adults; $30 for seniors; $20 for children 12 and under