Rescued Diablo Ballet Survives and Shines

by Mary Ellen Hunt

March 14, 2003

"I'm a little nervous," confides Lauren Jonas, artistic director of Diablo Ballet. "Pink tights, tutus, I know the ladies don't like to rehearse in them, but I'm wearing them, so it's not like I'm asking for anything I wouldn't do."

The dancers don't look too anxious. But then such wardrobe concerns are minor compared with the worries that plagued Diablo Ballet last September when the troupe was literally fighting for its existence. Only a last-minute appeal and an outpouring of support from the community kept the company afloat. This weekend it returns to the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek to celebrate its ninth anniversary.

"We're so grateful for what happened and we're still riding on that moment," says Jonas. "It's still very difficult, but we're in a much better place now."

Indeed, just last month, the Diablo Regional Arts Association announced substantial grants to the four anchor arts organizations that call the Regional Center home: California Symphony, Festival Opera, Center Rep and the ballet. The grant, which gives $30,000 to each organization (part in theater credit, part in cash), will go a long way toward addressing the cash-flow problems all four organizations have faced in the current economic climate.

The money ensures that Diablo Ballet can go confidently into one of its most ambitious programs of the season. It's a show that demonstrates the company's versatility, featuring works ranging from the purely classical Grand Pas d'Action from Act I of Marius Petipa's "La Bayadere," staged by Diablo's associate artistic director, Nikolai Kabaniev, to a new, quasi-European contemporary piece by his twin brother, Viktor.

A major production

Although the famous "Kingdom of the Shades" scene from "La Bayadere" often is performed as an excerpt, "La Bayadere's" first-act wedding pas de deux is in many ways more vibrant.

A classical production of this size is unusual for Diablo Ballet, and the company will augment their roster of nine members with eight young dancers -- some from local youth companies such as Contra Costa Ballet and Berkeley Ballet Theater -- in the corps de ballet roles.

In an afternoon rehearsal, Nikolai coaches the young dancers in the proper style for the ballet, drawing upon the vast experience of his Kirov Ballet days. The process is an educational one for the girls, who work hard to perfect the many small but important details, from the tilt of a head to the attack of the body into a step.

"Bigger, always more, give me more," Nikolai tells them. "You are a line of soloists dancing together. Show me more, so that I'll say, 'Stop! That's too much!'"

Originally, Jonas notes, the company planned to hire only four girls for the corps, "but there were so many of them, and they were all so talented, that we decided to use eight."

'Pairs' world premiere

Even though the girls, ages 15 to 17, have different training and backgrounds -- one, Sadie Strangio, returned to Lafayette from the Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C. -- they must all project a uniform classical style. The teens work individually on the steps, dipping their torsos even more extremely into the movement, and then try it together -- to Kabaniev's satisfaction.

"Don't forget," he admonishes them. "Remember these things."

In another rehearsal, Viktor works on "Pairs," which will have its world premiere on this program.

He hears in the music -- composed in 1938 by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu -- the portentous atmosphere of a world waiting for a war to begin. The modern-day parallels are not lost on him.

"I am trying to show people's relationships during slippery, uncertain times," says Viktor. "For example, even now, with the situation with war in Iraq, anything can happen, but you still have to live your life.

"When a catastrophe happens, people need each other, whether they're getting along or not getting along, loving each other, or not. It's the human nature, you cannot avoid it."

Viktor centers his work around three couples who find and lose each other against the backdrop of Martinu's Concerto for Double String Orchestra, Piano and Timpani. For those more used to Martinu's light, jazzy style, the edginess of the music may come as a surprise, but, as audiences saw in last year's "White Light," Kabaniev isn't one to shy away from a dramatic, even dark approach.

"You can entertain in ways that make people think, make people ask, 'What's that? Why?'" he insists. "For me, entertaining is not just funny and light."

A continuing education

His with Eifman Ballet, under its passionately theatrical director, Boris Eifman, obviously influenced Viktor. But he notes that European choreographers such as Jiri Kylian and Mats Ek have also had an enormous impact on how he views movement.

"I think the most important thing for me is how people make a movement," he says. "With what quality."

As with "La Bayadere," "Pairs" requires attention to details as small as the way the fingers are held in a pose. Viktor works hard to communicate what quality he is looking for to the dancers, who sometimes seem frustrated by the struggle of just working out the musical counts.

Viktor goes on to the next section. He is, by his admission, philosophical about his work.

"I think to myself that I am learning to be a choreographer. What I'm doing right now is educating myself. If I make a good piece, great. If it's not so good," he says with a laugh, "well, it's been an educational process for me and a challenge for the dancers."

This article was first published on March 14, 2003 in the Contra Costa Times

Edited by Jeff

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