Diablo Ballet

'Carmen' 'Airs'

by Toba Singer

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 this work.

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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