A conversation with Lauren Jonas
Artistic Director/Dancer, Diablo Ballet
October 11, 1999

By Azlan Ezaddin

 

Lauren Jonas greets me in the lobby of the office building with a cup of coffee to go in her hand. She is wearing a smart black business suit. We ride up the elevator to the administrative office of Diablo Ballet, chatting the entire time about dance, friendship and work. She sits at her desk which is at the end of a small group of desks. I sit diagonally across the desk from her. As we chat, the fax machine rings. Realizing it is out of paper, she gets up and refills it. After several more minutes, we are both ready for the interview.

 

 

Azlan Ezaddin: Lauren, watching you dance on stage my sense is that an audience gets the feeling you really are passionate about dancing. I know dancers are supposed to be passionate about dancing but there is a certain high-spiritedness about your brand of dancing that is infectious. What do you attribute it to? Who and what where your inspirations?
Lauren Jonas:
Well, I would say that running this company and being an artistic director and administrator, the dancing gives me a lot of fulfillment and pleasure, like a mother with their children. If you ask dancers who have children, they'll say that it's not just about them anymore. Their primary focus is their children and that they feel a different fulfillment in their dancing now – that's how I feel. I used to get really – not overly nervous – but I used to put everything I had into my dancing and now it's a release for me because I can stop thinking about everything else – the administrative side and all the business – and get out there and just enjoy myself. When I was just a dancer, I had many dancers who were inspirations to me. Cynthia Harvey is one of them. Talking to her always gave me inspiration. And Joanna Berman always gives me inspiration. But I don't think I have one particular dancer whom I admire more than others. Now I just feel so proud of this company, proud to be dancing in the company and excited about the release I get to actually get to perform too.

Your sister Corinne also dances with the company. Do you come from a family of artists?
No, I don't. My father is a financial planner and he used to be a stockbroker. Actually, he was in New York. He was a newscaster and he interviewed Kruschev and Churchill – he had a fabulous voice. Then he moved to California to become a financial professional. My mother is a school teacher. But my older sister used to dance – I used to go with my mom to drop her off at ballet and it looked like that was something I wanted to do. That's how I got started. The same was true with Corinne. So, it came more from the children than the parents.

So, how did you decide to become a professional dancer? At what point did you say “I want to be a ballerina” and what did your parents think of it at that time?
When I first started – when I was six years old – I think I knew all along that was what I wanted to do [Lauren laughs]. When I was in high school, when everyone else was doing their activities, Joanna [Berman] and I would be in the library trying to do our homework because we knew we had six hours of dancing after school. So, I think probably for sure, for sure I knew that was I wanted to do when I was about fourteen.

Going back to the sense of passion that you have about dancing, at a recent family performance at Concord Pavilion, you performed in a tango-inspired ballet choreographed by Sally Streets [Three to Tango]. In this ballet, you were almost thrown offstage by Nikolai and Viktor Kabanaiev. I noticed you kept your composure somewhat but Nikolai and Viktor had these mischievous smirks on their faces. Assuming they didn't intentionally mean to do any harm to you [Lauren laughs], was this the scariest or maybe the funniest moment on stage for you? Were there other comical moments or funny moments that you can recall?
No, that wasn't really funny to me and that wasn't scary either. I just thought, “Okay! I'm going pretty close to the edge [laughs]!” But it was just more of an observation as it was happening. [more laughter] I think one of the scariest things was when I was on stage; I forgot what I was doing and I totally blacked out. When that happened – thankfully it was a pas de deux – it was so scary because it feels like forever that you're trying to search for what you're trying to do and you can't figure it out. So you just keep moving around to the music and it has nothing to do with what the choreography is. That's really scary.

Was that [the blackout] attributed to anything?
I think I was tired. It was a long day and I just forgot what I was doing.

You mentioned some of your inspirations but as far as partnering goes – and no disrespect to your current partners – in your career you danced with several different partners in several different companies. Who were some of your favorites and what were some of the memorable moments?
It's interesting. I haven't had a partner that I've always danced with but I really enjoy dancing with [Associate Artistic Director] Nikolai [Kabanaiev] because we both have a common bond, which is artistically running the company. I have an emotional connection with him and it's something very special that happens on stage when it's just the two of us. We can really get carried away in what we're doing emotionally. I think that's very rare.

When did you first dance with Nikolai? When did you meet him? How did you bond?
I met him in '94. Actually I had met him superficially couple years before that. He was teaching in San Francisco [in '94]. When I was recruiting dancers for Diablo Ballet, I had heard that he was freelancing, so I called him in to take class. He has this sort of Russian air about him. He's wonderful and very tender, and very caring and generous. He has all the same nuances as everybody else but he has this cover when you don't really know him. He has a wicked sense of humor especially for somebody that didn't grow up in this country and for whom English is not their language. Anyway, I called him to take class, told him what we were doing, and he was really excited about it because he was no longer interested in just dancing but interested in choreography also and this was definitely a platform for him to do that.

Staying on the same thread, the one thing I was struck by when I first saw Diablo Ballet perform and in rehearsal was the camaraderie of the troupe. You mentioned Nikolai having this Russian air and you also have American dancers. It's almost like a family, despite the differences. Did you pick dancers with compatible personalities or did you have to work at melding them together?
Well, it's interesting because it's taken a really long time to get to that place, especially when dancers come from major companies; it's a very different situation here and it takes a time period of adjustment. They're given a lot of independence and freedom at Diablo Ballet where before they were much more restricted and monitored. It takes a dancer a little bit of time to come into their own and once that happens it's really great. But it hasn't always been that way and it's taken a long time to get to this place. Now, when I hire dancers, I'm not just looking for a really good dancer but I am looking for somebody who is going to meld well with everybody else because it's such a small group of people. One person who disrupts that disrupts the whole flow of everything. So, yes, personality is very much a consideration.

I'm assuming then that you haven't had that problem recently with having a dancer who didn't fit in.
[Pauses] What happens if I see something like that happening – which did happen recently – I call them aside and tell them this is the way it is and they're welcome to stay or not. I don't want people to be here if they're not happy. I don't want people to… It's hard, it's just hard enough. That usually calms one down and you just move on. So, if I see that happening, I take it into my own hands.

This is one thing I see in you, this nurturing ability that you have. I saw you illustrating basic ballet techniques to children at Concord Pavilion recently. I was amazed at how attentive the children were to your instructions. How much teaching do you do? Do you encourage your dancers to teach? Can you talk a little bit about your outreach program? Also, how does teaching rank in passion with dancing?
Firstly, I love children, I love working with them. I used to teach ballet before Diablo Ballet and I love training dancers but I definitely don't have that same passion for teaching as I do for dancing or for running a company. I don't know, I love the business aspect – I love meeting people and I love the challenge. I like that much more than actually teaching ballet. However, this outreach program of ours has been very fulfilling and I've encouraged the dancers – they know it's part of their job description to get involved – to go into the schools with me and to reach out to under-served communities. As far as the dancers go, our workday ends at three-thirty or four o'clock, so most of them do like to teach. I encourage that as long as it doesn't interfere with the workday. As far as going into grammar schools and junior high schools and things like that, it's been incredibly rewarding. I think that it's so much a part of really what we do, even more than performing.

As far as teachers go, I think there's much said about how teachers can influence a dancer, how the good ones can bring out the best in a dancer and how the bad ones can sometimes impede a career. What's your recommendation to young dancers on how to avoid teachers that may not seem to have their best interest in mind? What advice do you have?
Well, I feel that you can learn something from everybody. I feel like as a child, as I look back, perhaps I didn't think the teacher had my best interest in mind but they did. I think that it's important to be consistent with your training and your teachers. I was very fortunate to grow up at Marin Ballet. It was a wonderful training ground for me. I still look back at those teachers and they still inspire me today. They have an amazing influence over me. I think that when you're younger, you think you know better – how can you when you're a teenager? Unless someone is emotionally damaging to you, I think it's important to be driven and it's fine for somebody to be hard on you but at the same time you need to have a positive outcome.

At Marin and at your other schools, who were your most influential teachers?
Maria Vegh, I would have to say. She trained myself and Joanna Berman. She started training us when we were about eleven years old. She did some insane things with us [laughs] but she was incredible. When I have taught, I've taken some of her lessons and use them also. She is still an amazing teacher. Then as an adult, training with Sally Streets – she reshaped my technique. I was training very heavily with her. She taught me a lot and she polished the silver a little. She's amazing… she's an amazing woman. She really had and still does have a great influence on me.

As Artistic Director of Diablo Ballet, you're also responsible for the creative direction of the company. One of the things that you do is set programs for the season. I noticed that you tend to set mixed repertory programs with usually a classical or neoclassical piece, more often than not a Balanchine, and a couple of contemporary ballet pieces, sometimes a newly commissioned work. Can you explain how you set your programs and how often you commission new work?
Well, from the very beginning, I felt that it was important to satisfy every audience member as much as I can – I try to put myself in their shoes when I go to see ballet and ask what exactly I like from a program. I love full-length ballets but to me the most exciting programs are the most diverse – so that's what I've tried to do here. I think, at first, people said that it lacked artistic direction and now I think they see what it is that I've tried to do. But I feel it's important to satisfy the audience. It's also important to satisfy the dancers as individuals, technically, emotionally, artistically and I feel I can do that. I think it's terribly exciting to show the audience the range of these dancers and what they have to offer. So, that's been my goal from the very beginning and that's what I've tried to maintain. New works are very important to me and these dancers are such an eclectic group of amazing artists that it's important that works be set on them – that's what they're very challenged by. I would say we average ten to thirteen new works a year and it's also very important not just to have works from outside choreographers but to also have choreographers from within the company develop their artistry and creativity. Since the beginning it's been very important for me to nurture that.

How many dancers in the company do you have who choreograph?
Right now, just two; [Assistant Artistic Director] Kelly [Teo] and Nikolai. Kyongho [Kim] loves to dabble. We have these programs every year where the kids are bussed in to the theater for two mornings for free; it's underwritten. I let him [Kim] do a piece for that. It's not time yet for him to choreograph on the company. But I also have to say what's hard is when a choreographer will come to me and they'll say “I want to do this” and “I'll say that's really great but this is what the program is and it's too heavily that or it's too heavily this, so you can't do it this time. Maybe you can do it another time.” I have to see overall what's going to be the best mix. If I have a piece with piano in every single ballet [laughs], I need to change that. I also have to make sure that I don't have something that's all jazz or all one way or the other.

Besides your dancers, Kelly and Nikolai, who choreograph, you also have artistic staff who also choreograph.
That's true, Marina [Eglevsky] choreographs and Sally [Streets] choreographs.

What are their functions within the company, besides doing choreography?
Marina stages rare Balanchine works. She's one of very few individuals who have that privilege in the entire world. You know the story of her famous father [Andre Eglevsky] – some of the ballets were granted and gifted to her upon his death. Some of them, she's gone to the Balanchine estate and asked for permission. She also recreates Norbert Vesak's ballets that were originally set on her. She also restages ballets of her late husband, Salvador Aiello. So, she does both, she is a choreologist and she choreographs too. And, I need to go back to Marina also in saying that as far as a coach, some of the experiences I've had with her one on one – when I've worked on a pas de deux or a solo – have been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences as a dancer. She's just amazing with fine details and it's very incredible. I did a ballet of hers a year ago. Actually it was of her late husband's, called Solas, and it's to eight cellos and one soprano and it's beautiful. It's about a woman who is grieving a loss, for somebody who's just passed away, and how she copes with it. I'd always worked with Marina technically on pas de deux's for Balanchine pieces where she's fine tuning details but this [Solas] was emotional – it was amazing because everything she said to me in terms of “Think about this or think about that” – emotional things – somehow the way she could pinpoint it, I could completely identity with those things, and felt that maybe I could experience something like that in my life. So that was amazing. Sorry for the segue ways [laughs]. She's a tremendous asset.

We can talk about Marina a little bit. I've heard a lot of good things about her. I heard she was a wonderful dancer but, more importantly maybe, she was a magical teacher, which you touched upon somewhat.
Yes, she's a wonderful teacher.

She danced mostly in the east?
Royal Winnipeg and Hamburg and Harkness.

How did you get her out here to join your staff?
It was such a coincidence because I ran into Marina at a Berkeley Ballet Theater performance. I had taken class and I had gone to a performance -- I turned around and there she was. When I danced in New Mexico, she came and set Balanchine's A La Francaix on the company and I remember it was just a tremendous experience for me working with her then. I think I worked with her in '89 [in New Mexico]. And I ran into her in '94 [in Berkeley] and I said “You've got to work for Diablo Ballet. I'm now running the company and I really want to have you on board.” And that's how it went, how it started again with her. She had relocated here and she was getting into a specific form of massage therapy and teaching White Cloud, which is a therapeutic way of retoning and conditioning the body to get it stronger.

And Sally's function? She's called Artistic Advisor and that is exactly what she is. She also choreographs for the company. She teaches company class occasionally. And Nikolai teaches company class and he assists me in planning programs and anything artistic. In terms of hiring dancers, I like to bounce things off him, and now Kelly as well.

Let's talk a bit about choreography. I have yet to see a Diablo Ballet program with [Lauren grins in anticipation] a Lauren Jonas work.
Yeah, you'll keep waiting [laughs]!

Why would I have to keep waiting? Why don't you choreograph?
Because I think that when you have your feet in too many pots, you're not going to be able to create anything substantial. Number one, I feel like I'm surrounded by so many incredibly talented people who do that so much better than I could do and who have the passion for it that I feel that my role and my job is to support that choreographic creativity and to help them promote it. I think a lot of people have questioned that because many company artistic directors are choreographers – but very well known directors who have been very good managers have not been choreographers. Look at Patricia Wilde, for one, who ran Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and I can name quite a few. Even Baryshnikov who restaged ballets didn't really choreograph himself. I'm doing so much right now I could not imagine taking one other thing. It's not ever been an interest for me. Running this company is my first priority above anything.

Well, then this begs this next question, what do you see in the future of Lauren Jonas the Dancer? Will she give way to Lauren Jonas the Director?
Yeah! She will and I think slowly that will start happening. I want to stop dancing when I still look… [laughs] when people have a pleasure in watching me. I feel it's very important to maintain this company and the way it's running, making sure everyone's happy and everyone's focused, doing what they're supposed to be doing – that's my first priority and that will eventually become what I do completely.

And now for my dream project question. [Lauren laughs] What is your dream project? Assuming you can call on any choreographer you want, commission any composer you want, and have any set you want, what would you want to do?
I want to do so many things. Realize that this company is just in its sixth year, so we're still babies. More than anything, I would like to say twenty years from now that we're still here, that not only are we here but we're really strong, that the whole nation is familiar with who Diablo Ballet is, that we have more dancers, that we have a larger budget to bring in bigger name choreographers, like Christopher Bruce – I would love a piece of Christopher Bruce [grins] – and to maintain quality. That is my dream and that is what I wish for the most.

Well, we can talk about Christopher Bruce [Lauren laughs] a bit.
I have a letter from him in here [pointing to a manila folder].

I understand that one of his former dancers, Erika Johnson, now dances with Diablo Ballet.
Well, actually she was with Houston Ballet and he is the Resident Choreographer of Houston Ballet. He used her in the lead for many ballets. He responded to my letter [requesting a work of Bruce's] rather quickly and he put Diablo Ballet on the top of his list for the future when he has time. You know also, it would be great to have a [José] Limón work. And there are many choreographers whose works I would like to have and for them to be around the dancers longer.

Well, you did have Gary Masters of the Limón Dance Company do a piece for you.
He's wonderful.

Can you also name some of the other outside choreographers who have created new pieces for Diablo Ballet?
Well, KT Nelson, who's fabulous. She'll be setting her fifth work for us in another week. Christopher Stowell, who's wonderful to work with. He'll be setting his second work for us. And then we have the Norbert Vesak works and the Balanchine works. We're getting a Val Caniparoli pas de deux which is great. I've always wanted to bring Val in, so I'm excited about that. Then eventually an Alonzo King work. We're also getting a Ben Stevenson work, which I found out this morning. We will be the only other ballet company in the state of California that has a Ben Stevenson work, besides San Francisco Ballet, in their repertoire.

Do you want to talk about your upcoming seasons? Where are you going to be touring besides where you regularly perform here in Walnut Creek? I understand you have performances in Berkeley and I hear there are future projects in the works.
November 5th, we'll be performing in UC Berkeley in association with Cal Performances. I thought it would be an interesting idea to bring some of the dancers from ODC/San Francisco in to collaborate in the production of [KT Nelson's] Walk Before Talk since they performed it too. So I'm very excited about that. Then we have performances at the end of November in Walnut Creek with all premieres, we're back at Zellerbach [UC Berkeley] January 15th, then we go to Southern California and Palm Springs in February, then we're back in Walnut Creek in March, we're in San Luis Obispo in March, then we're back here in Walnut Creek in May, and we're going to be performing at Yerba Buena [Center for the Arts in San Francisco] next September – September 2000 – which we are excited about. We may also possibly go to Hawaii to perform on three different islands there. Just now, I'm finalizing our touring dates for 2000 and 2001. So, it's great. When we first started, we had eight performances a year and that was it. Now, it's more than doubled, so it's very exciting.

Of all the places you have danced and will dance in the future, which theater, which place, which audience did you enjoy the most? Which one gives you a chill down your spine?
Several places did that but just recently at the Concord Pavilion – which we are also the resident ballet company of – it was an amazing feeling. All the dancers when they perform there, they say it just does not feel like work. When the curtain goes down, which is very rare, they say “Already? We could do more. We can dance some more.” [Laughs] The audience is so excited – there are so many people – and to look out and see all those people is phenomenal. And the warmth! I also have to say that performing at UC Berkeley, at Zellerbach Hall, was an amazing experience. It was a very true dance audience and to be accepted by them – the warmth we had and the number of people there – was wonderful.

Going back to Joanna Berman, she's your best friend and you were each other's bridesmaid. Do you think you could ever get her to dance as a guest at Diablo Ballet or would you even consider it?
We have. She comes to teach company class and she assists Christopher Stowell. What's really exciting is we're performing together in March at the Jewish Community Center in Marin, where there is this big subscription series. One night they have ODC/San Francisco, the next night they have Lines [Contemporary Ballet], and the next night they have something called Marin Dance Legends and it's Joanna, myself and Corinne [Jonas]. That'll be really fun because we haven't performed together since we were kids.

This is my last question for you. Recently, when I flew down to watch Joanna Berman perform Giselle in Orange County, you had sent me off with a message [Lauren laughs] saying, “Send my love to Joanna.” I flew down and didn't think I would ever run into Joanna Berman, but who would walk in right after me in the lobby of the hotel but Joanna Berman. I gave her [a befuddled Joanna Berman] your message. When I told you about it, you sent me a message back saying, “Well, of course you would meet her. I knew you would.” I get the feeling sometimes in your life or in directing the company, you have this certain attitude that things are just going to fall into place. [Lauren stares incredulously] You exude that kind of confidence in people. But I see also this other side where you have to work to make things happen. Can you talk a little about the work that you do as an artistic director in inspiring other people in the company? How you create this aura of confidence in yourself that inspires people around you?
I would have to say that others in the organization have taught me about managing people because I didn't know that much about it. A lot of it is intuitive but they taught me that no matter how you're feeling, it is important to go in to work as a leader and express confidence – make people feel comfortable and give them a very positive environment so that you get the most of out them. Make them feel that what they're doing is really worthwhile. Some days I'll come in and I'll find myself really concerned about something and I can't show it because the minute that I'm concerned, the whole attitude and the vibe of the room changes – it gets people worried and that's not going to produce good work. So it's important that I'm aware of that. Also, I've always been fairly good in managing crisis situations. That's what I've always been good at, even as a child. I think because I'm the middle child of three siblings, I've always had to be the mediator and the middle ground person. So, there's a lot of hard things that I've had to deal with, whether it's wanting to do something I can't because financially we can't do it or telling a choreographer they can't do it. The hardest thing for me is when – but with experience it's gotten easier – something happens the day before the performance. You've been in rehearsal six weeks and somebody gets so injured that they can't dance. I have to get on the phone and fly someone in overnight because we are only ten or eleven dancers. That's happened and things of that nature have happened so many times that – instead of getting really stressed and very, very scared – I just say to myself that things will work out somehow. I just have to micromanage my time and just take one thing at a time until I get the solutions and the problems solved. Also, I'm a great believer that things happen for a reason and things are meant to be a certain way whether it's good or not – you just have to go with it and not let the little things bother you.

Actually, I lied. I do have one more question [Lauren laughs]. You mention your older sister twice and I just can't let that one slide. Does she still dance?
No, she had to retire at a very young age in her mid-twenties because she had a really bad foot injury and it never healed properly. It was so painful. And she's now in her late thirties, so it was quite a bit ago. We didn't have the therapy that we have now and acupuncture wasn't as successful, or we didn't know so much about it. Maybe now, it would have been different. But she loves ballet and she comes to all our performances. She lives in Arizona but she comes back just to see our performances and she's very supportive. So, now she's a great patron of the arts but she's no longer a dancer.

Thank you.
Thank you!


After chatting a while more, we leave the office and walk out to the street. Lauren asks me where I'm parked and offers to drive me to my car even though it is no more than two blocks away. I politely decline and we say goodnight.

 

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