Josie Walsh was walking through Temescal Canyon early this year when her sight was arrested by a mélange of rocks. Jagged stones bulged out on the trail's edge, while others, textured and worn smooth by water, lay nearby.
The passage — and effect — of time, she thought and kept going.
But that was the idea to which she returned when Salwa Rizkalla, artistic director of Festival Ballet Theatre, commissioned her to choreograph the academy's fall production.
"Time is such an interesting concept ... it's not really linear," Walsh, a Los Angeles resident, said. "I was thinking how landscapes change and how we change on the inside — our internal terrain — from all that we experience."
And so the dancer, who has worked with the Joffrey Ballet, Zurich Ballet and Oregon Ballet Theatre, constructed a routine that fuses classical and contemporary aesthetics. "Texture of Time" will premier at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Saturday and Sunday, in a two-part program that begins with a modern rendition of "Firebird," written in 1910 with music by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by Michel Fokine.
For the show, Walsh teamed up with her husband, Paul Rivera Jr., a disc jockey and composer who has adopted the moniker "Jealous Angel." The 32-minute "Texture," featuring three male and 12 female dancers — six adults and six girls — is accompanied by a haunting tune, communicating the innocence and purity of youth, heartbreak, the joy of community and even the shedding of figurative baggage.
"Sometimes I get so serious that I miss my youthful bubble of 'What ifs' and 'Life's so big and shiny,'" Walsh reflected. "You go through that stage of your bubble being burst and then find yourself a bit jaded until, at some point, through wisdom and maturity, you choose to bring back that childlike wonder so there is magic in your world once again."
Along with multimedia effects that communicate the vicissitudes of times, the artist enlisted Jim Doyle, an Academy Award winner known for his work on the movie "Nightmare on Elm Street," who is also part of the design team at Water Entertainment Technologies, recognized for the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas.
"'Texture' will have haze and low-lying fog, scenic treatments, projections and other elements to support the ballet," Doyle said. "But the audience should register the effects, not notice them. You don't want anyone to leave 'whistling' the scenery."
During a recent rehearsal, dancers lacked the special effects and relied solely on their bodies and expressions to create what Walsh called a "vocabulary" — a text without words. The studio on Garfield Avenue in Fountain Valley became a space outfitted with mirrors, barres and a blur of leotards, sinewy muscles and seemingly gravity-defying limbs.
The steps were first workshopped by Walsh in a studio and then taught to the performers in four weekly rehearsals from late August. Although every detail is time coded — dance and lighting included — she encouraged them to "own" their roles. Expressions are not spoon-fed, she said. They are constantly changing and based on each dancer's internal dialogue with the role.
"Firebird," by contrast, isn't based on a recurring theme. It draws on a Russian folk tale about a magical, glowing bird entwined with the life of a prince and princess. This weekend marks the restaging of the 50-minute routine, first produced for Festival Ballet Theatre by Nikolai Kabaniaev in 2010.
Kabaniaev, of Walnut Creek, said the heavily stylized ballet was initially accompanied by a lot of walking — only the firebird danced en pointe — and cumbersome costumes from the early 20th century.
"Nowadays, we have dancers who are technically more advanced," he said. "I had about 40 dancers — all female and all en pointe. My goal was to choreograph a ballet that could be viewed by a more contemporary audience ... everything is original and the story was modified just a bit."
Kabaniaev, who has been associated with the Oakland Ballet, Diablo Ballet and Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., came into contact with Rizkalla via his twin brother, Viktor, a dancer and choreographer who previously worked with Festival Ballet Theatre. The siblings, whose mother worked in ballet as a makeup and wig artist, had spent most of their time backstage ever since they were 2, leading to a "natural fit."
"Ballet is a combination of very athletic movements, and at the same time, it's art," Kabaniaev said. "Your entire body is involved, and so are your emotions. I think it's incredible."
For Doyle, the pleasure is different.
"I get to spend my time working with people that are that good," he said.
If You Go
What: "Festival Ballet Theatre: Firebird and Texture of Time"
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $40 adult, $37 senior, and $30 children