May 10, 2003 -- Dean
Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, California
Diablo Ballet’s season concluded
with a program of two works, “Airs, “ by Paul Taylor, staged by Mary Cochran,
and “Carmen,” by Nikolai Kabaniaev.
“Airs” was a good choice. Described as “Taylor at his most traditional,”
it showcases the company’s ten seasoned dancers in a series of chamber
sets that point up the special qualities which each dancer brings to the
company. Dancing on flat, the women in this company bring expert technique
and sensibility that colorize Taylor’s choreography. Tina Kay Bohnstedt’s
sylvan line, Grethel Domingo’s spirited split jumps and Kristin Long-style
unstoppable energy, and the gentle pas de deux featuring Erika Johnson
and Edward Stegge, finely etch the company’s profile. In a coda danced
by Bohnstedt, Domingo and Johnson, the women show lovely port de bras
work that seem to place the whole world in their hands.
The interpretation of “Carmen” by Kabaniaev removed it from its controversial
operatic beginnings in the late 19th century, where opera goers, critics,
and even the musicians who played it, denounced its story’s association
with the grit and grime of Spain’s lumpenproletariat: A fickle gypsy woman
in the thick with murderers, thieves and prostitutes, seduces a highborn
soldier and is the catalyst for his ignoble act of murder. Here, Carmen
is a fantasy woman attended by masked phantoms. In lieu of the soldier,
Nikolai Kabaniaev gives us a contemporary striver danced by Victor Kabanaiev,
leading an ordinary life with an assertive, if ordinary wife. He is suddenly
overtaken by his own fantasy about Carmen.
The piece opens with a gold drape covering a row of theater seats with
the couple seated rather unceremoniously in their underwear. The attending
coryphée of phantoms is effectively topped off with butoh-like three (or
was it four?)-way masks, so that when the dancers turn upstage, downstage,
left or right, we always see a face, human or otherworldly. Carmen’s striking
entrance in an elaborate red teddy-type costume with black French-cut
lace briefs confirms that we are in modern times here and there’s no going
back. As Carmen, Tina Kay Bohnstedt gives us great épaulement at the same
time that she remains loose-jointed. She is comfortable with, yet undwarfed
by, the richly complex circular set that somewhat perversely includes
Albert Speer-like jets of vertical light giving way to crossed red spots.
There are screened images across the backdrop that sometimes look like
flowers, and at other times appear to be spectators around a corrida.
The fantasy has the modern-day striver and his wife deciding that this
is an occasion worth dressing for. With that accomplished, the masked
phantoms invite them into the feverish set that looks variously like the
ninth circle of hell and/or a bullring. The music by Rodion Shchedrin
(after Bizet’s “Carmen Suite, Opus 36”) gets more interesting here, as
it splays like a Spike Jones arrangement. Hubby is bored, wifey is petulant;
but Ms. Bohnstedt’s Carmen picks up the pace in a smooth interplay with
the golden drape, lending a whole new meaning to the term “Golden Idol.”
She’s totally got the Spanish back going, and this female Torquemada has
converted every last one of us, but then it’s suddenly the wife who emerges
from the drape!
The piece would read nicely were it not for one flaw—the costumes (which
included rainbow-streaked Ronald McDonald-style clown wigs!) worn by the
masked coryphée are too translucent, loose and flowing, and in the darkly
lit places, they appear to “step on” or blur the lines of the principal
dancers. The second pas de deux between The Man and Carmen includes some
floor work. Without the fine specificity conferred by the choreographer
that the dancers expertly deliver, the segment could have easily taken
on the pallor of a tepid floor barre. Should he decide to share it with
other companies, Mr. Kabanaiev may want to be careful about who dances
Less than a year ago, Diablo Ballet was on the brink of financial disaster
and was threatening to close its doors. Donors throughout the Bay Area
and beyond, as well as the City of Walnut Creek, wisely rushed to its
rescue. Artistic Director, Lauren Jonas, picked up the ball she was given
and ran with it. The timely addition of Mr. (Nikolai) Kabanaiev as Co-Artistic
Director, and the well-chosen repertoire for the season’s finale point
the way for other struggling companies throughout the country. This is
a small company with a big vision that has brightened visibly and made
a quick comeback in no time at all. Congratulations, Diablo Ballet!
Edited by Jeff.
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