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Diablo Ballet

'Carmen' 'Airs'

by Mary Ellen Hunt

May 9, 2003 -- Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, California.

Nikolai Kabaniaev's "Carmen," which Diablo Ballet premiered Friday at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, is not what you might think.

Unsettling and experimental, this is not your garden-variety gypsy story but a contemporary look at love gone wrong, characterized by Kabaniaev's trademark humor and audacious style.

In Diablo's version, “Carmen” is merely shorthand for unattainable sexy exoticism, a sticking point in the marital travails of an ordinary couple, played appealingly by a bewildered Viktor Kabaniaev and an icy Erika Johnson. As danced by the leggy Tina Kay Bohnstedt, Carmen is part Romantic ideal, part schoolboy fantasy, inhabiting the husband's dreams and seducing him into a series of sensuous, spicy pas de deux, then casting him aside for an even dreamier toreador, played by LINES Ballet's Artur Sultanov. (Hey, whose dream is this anyhow?)

In "Twilight Zone" fashion, no one is in control of his or her own destiny. The landscape is ever-changing and garish. Grotesque, ominously masked figures manipulate the husband and wife in and out of each episode -- a device guaranteed to make kids fear clowns more than ever. And motivations of various characters throughout are marked by ambiguity.

All of the right production elements in this "Carmen" are in place. The cast of chorus members that also haunt the husband wear phantasmagorical four-faced masks -- which makes five faces including the dancer's own -- that reveal a new expression each time the dancers turn or bow their head. It's an effect used to good theatrical advantage. Artist Guy Buffet, designer of Diablo's winsome "Magic Toy Store," has economically filled the space and the eye with a skewed arena that recalls both a bullfighting corrida as well as a circus of the bizarre.

Then too, Rodion Shchedrin's percussive "Carmen Suite," based on music from the famous George Bizet opera, echoes the lurid, circus themes. There's a good reason why many choreographers choose Shchedrin's music as the backdrop to their balletic versions of "Carmen," from the original created by Alberto Alonso for Shchedrin's wife, the great Maya Plisetskaya, to Mats Ek's more recent modernist take, choreographed for the Cullberg Ballet. It's a strikingly danceable score, with jazzy overtones that give a ballet dramatic drive without being too obviously programmatic.

If there's a weakness to the ballet, it lies in the limitations of the staging. For instance, certain effects come across as contrived, simply because we're so close to the performers that we can see the mechanics a little too clearly.

The audience is almost on top of the "ordinary" life scenes, which are played out on the riser that covers the orchestra pit at the Lesher Center. At the very start of the show, a row of theater seats rises up from the depths like a gold-lame covered Wurlitzer. The front section of the stage however, can only be lit harshly, so the parts of "Carmen" that play in "real world" are jarringly untheatrical, even bare compared with the rest of the production, although this may be part of the point that Kabaniaev is trying to make.

Also on the program was Diablo Ballet's first go at Paul Taylor's gorgeous 1978 work "Airs."

Set to eight pieces of music by George Friedrich Handel, this is the kind of piece that ballet companies love to acquire: fluid, pretty, and yet still falling into the category of modern dance. Nevertheless, even on some of the best companies, "Airs" can have a sterile look, so it's a relief to see that Diablo Ballet infuses the choreography with their usual spirit and sensitivity.

The three women, an introspective Bohnstedt, a warm-hearted Johnson and the sprightly Grethel Domingo, each found a distinctive character that helped to distinguish their dancing and yet melded easily with the others. The men, Edward Stegge, Miroslav Pejic and Sultanov, for their part danced with a courtly attention to their partners. Stegge and Johnson's duet, in particular, to music from "Alcina," was engagingly cheerful.

But all was not perfection. Some of the accents could have been cleaner, the men could have been a shade perkier in the allegro bits and the dancers will need to develop stamina to last out the piece. But the staging, by former Taylor dancer Mary Cochran, is solid, and a worthy addition to Diablo's ever-growing repertoire.

This article was first published on May 12, 2003 in the Contra Costa Times

Edited by Jeff

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