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Bay ballet founder passing his legacy ‘Secret Garden’ to Modesto’s CWB; how to see it

Mitchell Welsh and Gillian Johnson prepare for Central West Ballet’s production of Secret Garden that will be May 18th and 19th at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto, Calif. The two are pictured May 1, 2019 at Central West Ballet.
Mitchell Welsh and Gillian Johnson prepare for Central West Ballet’s production of Secret Garden that will be May 18th and 19th at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto, Calif. The two are pictured May 1, 2019 at Central West Ballet. jlee@modbee.com

The beloved story of “The Secret Garden” could be a next-step moment for Modesto’s Central West Ballet, thanks to the guidance and the passing on of the production from the founder of a Bay Area company.

Ronn Guidi, who founded the Oakland Ballet in 1965, has spent the past several weeks in Modesto working with the troupe as he hands down his choreography and vision of “The Secret Garden” to Central West Ballet.

“I don’t have a company,” Guidi said during one of his recent visits to the CWB studios. “I thought, I don’t want it to disappear when I’m gone.”

Central West presents Guidi’s “The Secret Garden” on Saturday, May 18, and Sunday, May 19, in the Mary Stuart Rogers Theater at the Gallo Center for the Arts in downtown Modesto. It also will perform at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 11, at the Grand Theatre Center for the Arts in Tracy.

Guidi has been working with the dancers and with CWB Artistic Director Daveluy and Ballet Mistress Leslie Larson for the upcoming staging. And he likes what he sees.

“We have three casts and they’re all different and they’re all wonderful because of their ability to interpret,” Guidi said.

The passing of his “Secret Garden” torch comes because of his longtime professional relationship with Larson, which began at the onset of her career as a ballerina.

“Leslie was in my company and a beautiful dancer. I’ve been coming to watch the company for about four or five years now. They’re lovely, (Larson and Daveluy are) both unique talents,” Guidi said

“I was 19 years old and he gave me my first professional contract,” Larson said. “We had started running into each other at ballet performances after many years.” The relationship grew and “he just started coming down to see everything (at Central West). Every time we had performances, he’d come see them, so he’s been watching the company grow and form.”

That ultimately led to Guidi allowing CWB to stage his work.

“You have to have the right dancers, at the right time, at the right level, with the right maturity to be able to do something as huge (as ‘The Secret Garden’),” Larson said.

“Ronn’s inheritance of all the great names of ballet and music that influenced the course of the 20th century, it’s all in ‘The Secret Garden’,” Daveluy said. “The construction of the choreography, the construction of the scenes and how to bring them about not only through acting, but movement to music and the way for the characters to be directed all comes from his legacy that he (gained).”

According to Guidi, the acting that Daveluy noted is particularly important.

“The common denominator between Central West Ballet and Oakland Ballet when I was there, they’re taught how to act,” Guidi said. “The Secret Garden” is a storytelling ballet, needing acting and dance to inform the narrative.

The well-known classic is based on a 1911 book by Frances Hodgson Burnett and set in Victorian England. The book has been made into a play, a movie and an award-winning musical.

The story centers on Mary, a spoiled child who moves from India to live with her widowed uncle at his manor in England after she’s orphaned in a cholera epidemic. There, Mary meets a new friend, discovers a seemingly handicapped cousin and learns of a forbidden secret garden on the property. Finding the garden and tending it back to new life transforms Mary as well as the life of her new family.

“Every movement in that production has been thought through very carefully,” Guidi said of his ballet.

Guidi choreographed the dance to music by Sir Edward Elgar for the Oakland Ballet in 1996 and the company toured the work nationwide to critical acclaim. Guidi said he retired from the Oakland Ballet in 1998, but returned to its helm in 2005 to restore the then-struggling company. Since retiring again, he continues work with his Ronn Guidi Foundation for Dance.

Central West Ballet’s production involves 35 dancers from the main company, CWB II trainees and Academy students. There will be three casts of principal dancers, one each for the two Modesto performances and one for the Tracy performance.

Modesto audiences will see David Bertlin and Mario Vitale Labrador as Archibald Craven; Daniela Ceballos and Lacey Elliston as Mary; Maria Bellamy and Nicole Firpo as Martha. In both Modesto performances, Mitchell Welsh will play Colin and Larson will dance the role of Lilias Craven.

Other cast members for the three performances include Nathanael Howard, Aaron Gulevich, Beth Ward, Grant Landon, Erin McMahon, Noelle Im, Gillian Johnson and Sarah Weaver.

Guidi said he’s pleased that the Modesto dancers are “not afraid” of him and readily go to him for guidance.

“It’s bringing out of our dancers something new,” Daveluy said. “It’s really amazing, they’re crazy good at it.”

In addition to the choreography and music, Guidi has brought from his personal archives the original backdrops from the Oakland Ballet stagings as well as almost all of the costumes to CWB. And the original creators of the Oakland sets have been in Modesto to help rebuild them for the Gallo Center production.

Guidi intends to leave all of it with the Modesto company so Central West can carry on his work. “I expect all those things to stay here with this company,” he said. “Because I know the ballet here will survive.”

Larson said they’re doing more outreach than ever before to attract audiences to the production, from holding a special tea to book readings at Barnes and Noble to a Downtown Modesto Rotary show and multiple school performances.

It’s Daveluy’s hope to have Guidi’s “Secret Garden” become an annual staging for the company. He also wants to take the production on the road throughout California — an important next step for the troupe he and Larson have led since 2004 and turned into a professional company in 2010.

Larson said the way Guidi formed the ballet is “brilliant” and will resonate with fans of the book, young and old.

“I think that the way this ballet is put together as a narrative from this novel, this beautiful children’s novel, is so brilliant,” she said. “It’s these beautiful little one-act vignettes that are all linked together into a two-act ballet. ... It’s the relationships between every single character that tell the story, that are so poignant and tender and funny and sad and loving.”

“The way Ronn choreographed it, it’s just really, really beautiful and it completely tells the story.”

“The Secret Garden”
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday, May 18, and Sunday, May 19
WHERE: Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I St., Modesto
TICKETS: $20-$55
ONLINE: www.galloarts.org
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