In 2002, Iain Webb did not want to see director-choreographer Will Tuckett’s “The Wind and the Willows.”
The now Sarasota Ballet director had just spent two months in Japan on a work trip, and the show was in a few hours. But Webb’s wife and now assistant director of Sarasota Ballet, Margaret Barbieri, insisted. Tuckett was an old friend from The Royal Ballet where he and Webb were both dancers in 1990. Tuckett had gotten them tickets and it was the final run. Begrudgingly, Webb went.
He found it riveting. It wasn’t just a theatrical or dance performance. It was a warm retelling of Kenneth Grahame’s story that imaginatively combined puppetry, dance, music and text.
“It was the most amazing piece ever,” Webb says. “… It wasn’t going in and seeing a ballet, it was seeing theater and dance mixed. What was incredible was that the whole theater was having fun from the little kids to the old grannies.”
The conversations for creating Sarasota Ballet’s own version of the hybrid dance-theater-puppet production started when Tuckett came to Sarasota in 2013 to choreograph “Changing Light.” When Tuckett returned the following year to choreograph “Lux Aterna,” the project was already well underway. Only instead of “The Wind and the Willows,” the company would retell “The Secret Garden.”
It’s a story of a bratty orphaned girl, Mary Lennox, who moves into her mean uncle’s mansion. To occupy her time, she searches for a hidden garden on the property. With the help of the first friends she’s ever had — an animal-whisperer named Dickon, and her believed-to-be-crippled cousin Colin — she restores the garden back to life.
The two-hour, two-act family production Tuckett created specifically for Sarasota Ballet will have its world premiere Aug. 8. Following the August run, the company will open its season Oct. 24 with Tuckett’s “The Secret Garden.”
A pop of color
A month before opening, the usually sleepier summer at Asolo Repertory Theatre’s Koski center — the 45,000-square-foot scenery and production shop — is blossoming for the collaboration on Sarasota Ballet’s “The Secret Garden.”
In a small room offset from the rehearsal space, dancers are fit in their costumes designed by Tim Meacock, whom Tuckett had worked with on three shows and was chosen to create the sets and costumes.
The England-based computer-engineer-turned-theater-designer trained at famed and now defunct Motley Theatre Design. His vision started with a small square-inch pencil drawing in a huge tablet-sized sketchbook. It was of an enclosed garden with four walls on stage.
“It’s a difficult thing going into a garden and taking the audience inside with you,” he says.
Eventually, he and Tuckett landed on using large transparent gates and walls on casters, or wheels, that can open and rearrange.
Tuckett’s vision for the show is more cinematic and fluid than a typical theater production. Instead of sets being changed at blackout, the dancers will move the set pieces themselves. Before the audience’s eyes, rooms will seamlessly adapt from bedrooms to the garden.
“Children get bored quickly, and if there’s a (blackout) or a moment to disengage, then you have to work to re-engage them. And like this, basically, I’m never letting them go,” Tuckett says.
The production starts monochromatic, and each time the children visit the garden — pops of color are added on stage. In one scene, a yellow field of daffodils appears; in the final scene, it's purple wisteria.
“(It’s about) pairing down the colors and keeping that surprise, so when you get to the end, you forget color existed,” Meacock says.
Around the corner in the scenic shop, Meacock’s green-thumbed garden vision comes to life. As pieces are finished, they are brought into the rehearsal room where the dancers perfect the production.
Garden grows under feet
The dancers work on a scene in the first act. In this scene, petite Jessica Cohen, playing Mary, searches for a key to the garden. A crow leads her to where it is hidden.
The crow is one of a handful of dancer-controlled puppets designed by Toby Olie. Olie has worked on such productions as the new staging of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and the play “War Horse.”
The dancers, who aren’t hidden from sight, work the crow, rabbits, robin and fox. They gracefully fly the birds and hop the rabbits in a way that could put professional puppeteers out of business.
“Dancers make really good puppeteers,” Tuckett says.
And what the audience doesn’t pick up on through Tuckett’s choreography and puppetry is told through a script created by British playwright, Alasdair Middleton.
Middleton and Tuckett are perpetual colleagues on many productions. His script is prose-like with repeated phrases and rhyming and spoken by a lone narrator, Edward Lewis French. French, an actor with a British accent, voices the characters thoughts and movements to underline what’s going on so children can perfectly understand.
As he speaks, the dancers perform their usual impressive lifts and turns to a composition by Jeremy Holland Smith. Smith created the music for the ballet’s production of Tuckett’s “Changing Light.”
“People were crazy about the music,” Webb says.
And music for “The Secret Garden” should be no different. It’s a simple orchestration that sounds as lovely as a Secret Garden looks.
Webb, who is in the back of the room, stands quiet and looks pleased. He’s not giving his usual comments or insight, as if he’s trustingly relinquished his control. He makes a joke.
“I’m just going to wait until the end when it’s all finished to tell (Tuckett) it’s rubbish,” he says.
But his face doesn’t hide that Webb is even more riveted by “The Secret Garden” than he was at “The Wind and the Willows,” which, as he said before, was the most amazing piece ever.
IF YOU GO
'The Secret Garden'
When: Opens 7 p.m. Aug. 8 and runs through Aug. 16. Also runs Oct. 24 through Oct. 26.
Where: FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 North Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
Cost: Tickets $25 to $75
Info: Call 359-0099 or visit sarasotaballet.org.