London Children’s Ballet
The Secret Garden
London, Peacock Theatre
26 April 2013
A welcome annual tradition is now well established through this spring season of the London Children’s Ballet at the Peacock Theatre. But, this handful of performances over a long weekend presents just the decorative veneer on months of hard work in this ongoing charitable enterprise. It really is, as they say, just the tip of the iceberg with most of the activity happening furiously beneath the surface, undertaken by a host of unsung heroes and heroines making sure that the show goes on. And I never cease to be amazed at what a professional show it is, striving always to achieve the highest production values in designs, lighting, music and choreography. I see several works at the Peacock each year and, by comparison, there is nothing remotely amateurish about the LCB’s attention to detail.
This is the 19th LCB production and a remarkable total of 7,500 children have auditioned over this time, with just 669 making it into the company (although another 314 have taken part in the activities of LCB2, the separate outreach touring group, including my own daughter, several years ago). Most impressive is the fact that over 20 of the young dancers cast in A Little Princess, back in 2004, are now dancing professionally or are in the later stages of dance training, most notably Anna Rose O’Sullivan, now in The Royal Ballet and Sebastian Goffin at the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich. It is a very high success rate in an industry where many aspiring dancers fall by the wayside for so many different reasons. Reading through the comments of these LCB alumni in the programme, I’m impressed not just by the fact that around 60% of that year’s intake have turned their passion for dance into the foundations for a career, but that so many of them echo each other in crediting the LCB for giving them the inspiration to reach for their dreams.
A Little Princess was revisited for the second time last year and this year’s production is a revival of another of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novels, The Secret Garden, which was originally produced by the LCB in 2007 (with choreography by Christine Sundt). The original score composed by Artem Vassiliev for Sundt’s ballet was reprised by the bespoke LCB orchestra under the direction of Philip Hesketh. Eva Le Blanc’s original costume designs were further enriched with new costumes designed by LCB stalwart Sophie Cabot. And another LCB regular, Neil Irish, returned to produce his third set for the company. The most obvious change was in the new choreography by The Royal Ballet’s First Artist, Érico Montes. He has previously made short pieces for the First Drafts programme and also for New English Ballet Theatre but Érico becomes the 17th emerging choreographer to cut his teeth on a first full-length narrative ballet with the LCB. It is not just an inspirational training ground for children.
A complex tale – taking us from Colonial India to a Manor House in Yorkshire – with a very large cast, is neatly encapsulated in nineteen tightly-knit scenes, although those unfamiliar with Burnett’s story will need to have relied upon the extensive programme synopsis. I confess to taking a sneaky peek or two to get the gist, in places, but the young people in the audience around me seemed to have no such difficulty. Vassiliev’s score is cogently descriptive, referencing, amongst many other things, the exotic influences of the “Raj”, the “Wuthering wind” of the Yorkshire moors, the filigree lightness of the butterflies and the shades of dramatic intent within the narrative. Montes has deftly attenuated his choreography to the skill sets of young dancers, aged just 9 to 15, and he accentuates the narrative with lots of mime and heavy doses of humour, drama and sensitivity.
In the lead role of Mary Lennox, 14 year-old Isabel Summers gave a mature performance of delicacy and strength that never flagged even though she is hardly ever off the stage. Amongst the other cast members I enjoyed Rory Betts’ funny, grumpy old gardener, Emily Norman’s empathetic reading of the kindly maid, Martha, and Marvin Edwards as Dickon. At 13, he says that he loves to jump and that he hopes to be as good as Carlos Acosta! I hope that he, Isabel (and others in the cast) can use this matchless experience to spur them on to achieve their aspirations. But more than anything, I want to praise the younger dancers, many just 9, who put so much infectious enthusiasm into their work, none more so than the smallest of them all, Emily Coulson from Penge who made me smile every time she came on stage. Oddly, I went to see this show with an unrelated young woman from Penge – who 10 years ago, was also the smallest dancer on the LCB stage – and now she is a final year student about to graduate from the London Contemporary Dance School. Yet another of the legion of young dancers helped on their way by Lucille Briance’s enduring and enchanting creation.
It would be very wrong to close this review without paying tribute to Denise Rhind, who has been there in the background of every LCB production, working behind the scenes to get each production ready to show. After 19 years, starting as a volunteer parent managing ticket sales to her final role as the LCB’s Administrative Director, Denise is now retiring. In her programme note, the LCB Chairman and Artistic Director, Lucille Briance, notes “To say we will miss her is an understatement”. As someone who has seen many of the LCB shows down the years and a parent of a child who was a tiny part of this extensive retinue (and is also still dancing!), let me give a very public vote of thanks to Denise for all that she has done to encourage so many young people to enjoy their early life in dance.