9 Jul 2024

London Children’s Ballet in The Secret Garden

London Children’s Ballet is celebrating its 30th anniversary by bringing back one of its most loved stories, The Secret Garden, and jolly good it is, too.

Constance Rauly as Mary Lennox and Ellie Henderson as The Robin in The Secret Garden. © Photography by ASHConstance Rauly as Mary Lennox and Ellie Henderson as The Robin in The Secret Garden. © Photography by ASH

London Children’s Ballet
The Secret Garden
London, Peacock Theatre
6 July 2024, 13:30 matinee

I’ve not seen London Children’s Ballet (LCB) in 12 years, and had forgotten what an uplifting experience it is.

The concept is simple: put on a custom-made narrative ballet with children aged 9 to 16, usually with a custom score played live, add proper sets and costumes, and present it in a proper theatre to a paying audience. Rinse and repeat each year. It might sound simple, but auditioning the many hundreds of children who want to be part of the 60-strong company, and then all the rehearsals and costume fitting to be done, all while everyday life and schooling continue, is not an easy thing, and I take my hat off to all involved.

It’s also great that the profession more widely takes young dancers seriously, with patrons of LCB including Darcey Bussell, Lauren Cuthbertson, Steven McRae and Irek Mukhamedov. And on Saturday, Brandon Lawrence was in the audience along with the effervescent Ruth Brill (ex-Birmingham Royal Ballet), the LCB artistic director, returning after a year in which Jenna Lee (ex-English National Ballet) provided maternity cover and was overall supremo for getting this year’s show on stage. And as a scribbler out front, I, too, want to see and support new generations of dancers. So, lots of goodwill, but what makes it all so worthwhile is that it culminates in an enthralling show that holds its own as dance entertainment and not just something for the proud parents of those involved.

The Secret Garden is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 book and …tells the story of young Mary Lennox who journeys to England from India, following her mother’s death, to live with her Uncle. Her curiosity getting the better of her; she reveals the mystery of the Secret Garden and determines to bring it back to life; for the better of the house and her newly discovered cousin, Colin.”. It’s a much-loved children’s story and has been danced by LCB 4 times in its 30-year history, this version being choreographed by Erico Montes in 2013. It features a fine original score by Artem Vassiliev, neatly picking up on the story’s Indian start and the changing seasons, and colourful designs by Neil Irish, Eva Le Blanc, Sophie Cabot and Carrie-Ann Stein.

LCB tells the story over 18 scenes, succinctly described in the programme, but I found it generally easy to follow on stage. The show’s star is the actual Secret Garden, which is not shown in elaborate set designs but formed by dancers of all ages in a riot of exciting costumes and enchantingly brought to animated life, complete with butterflies. I also loved the drama-guiding Robin character, a role with some nice solos, and the accompanying Mrs Robin and Baby Robins that sweetly inhabit the garden. Also inspired are the Wuthering Winds and Spring Winds that show journeys and the passage of time, beautifully executed by some of the older dancers. I’ve decided not to comment on individual dancers - it’s a group effort, and I say bravo to them all for bringing the story to vivid life

The only thing that gives me a little pause for thought is that generally LCB do classic stories of yesteryear - I don’t think I’ve spotted anything really recent and that might be centred on Teneisha from Peckham or Dean in Birkenhead. That might feel very harsh, given so many grown up’ ballets are about a distant past and usually rich world. But somehow presenting a world to modern children that has many servants and much opulence feels a bit odd. That said, the audience, many of whom were youngsters under ten, were particularly quiet and attentive to what was happening on stage - no boredom or feelings of lack of relevance from them, I fancy. And next year’s choreographer is the Royal Ballet’s fun and delightfully idiosyncratic Kristen McNally - be the plot modern or old, Kristen will make it very much of today. It’s certainly a show I wouldn’t dream of missing!