How many boutique, suburban-based companies can celebrate a 22nd season with a smartly staged program featuring works by such choreographers as George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon, Sean Kelly, Sonya Delwaide, and Robert Dekkers? You can count them on the fingers of one hand. Diablo Ballet has weathered ups and downs that have kept much larger companies in a state of perpetual crisis, but by looking into Artistic Director, Lauren Jonas’s eyes, which never waver in their gaze, you can see that she keeps them fixed firmly on the prize of Diablo’s future.
Despite its Hallmark-ish moniker, the February 7th matinee program, “Enticing Beauty,” delivers a mostly solidly performed selection of works by the world-renowned and local choreographers. The sampler tests the dancers’ mettle, while delivering digestible dance art portions to a full house of loyal fans and ballet students.
Sean Kelly’s solo, “Reflexiones,” is set on the intense Rosselyn Ramírez, to Isaac Albéniz’s “Asturias (Leyenda),” played by guitarist Gabriel Navia. It has Ramírez, back to audience, draped in a translucent beige shawl with broad stripes of blue, red, and yellow, along wingspan arms. Naturalism meets classicism in high-reaching but well-rooted passé steps, and lengthened lunges that return her focus to the earth’s rugged surface. The switchback tendu that slice as they advance, are stylized nods to Navia’s probingly feverish strumming, and taken together, they suffuse the piece with a haunting Moorish ambience. Care is taken so that each transition creates a frame for the “dibujo” that the forthcoming steps invite us to see. It is a little masterpiece of feeling, form, and focus.
Sonya Delwaide, professor of Dance at Mills College, has an eye for designing costumes to contrast with her intricate but sturdy movement sculptures. Delwaide selected Erika Johnson, former Diablo and Houston Ballet dancer, as her rehearsal assistant. In “Sérénade pour Cordes et Corps” [Serenade for Strings and Body], to Erno Döhnányi’s “Serenade for String Trio,” the men wear waxed black, and the women, waxed indigo gladiator-style shorts and vests that present them as if sentries from an ancient order. The piece opens with an Allegro movement love-knot pas de trois danced by Derek Sakakura, Ludmila Campos and Robert Dekkers. On stage, is a string trio of Janet Witharm, Cello, Philip Santos, Violin, and Katrina Wreedie, Viola. The dancers move to a spot in front of the trio, making it difficult to discern Delwaide’s delicate motifs. Moving the dancers to center stage, or different lighting for trio and dancers, could solve the problem. The Andante movement unites Campos, a former San Francisco Ballet dancer, with Christian Squires, Diablo’s most virtuosic dancer, in a filigree-like pas de deux that teases out the deep-water legato sensibilities of both dancers. They go down low to match moaning cello intonations and rise from the floor to the violin’s high notes. Amanda Farris’s pretty bourée entrance shares a little insider ballet joke with the audience in the context of Delwaide’s reliance on contemporary gesture. Farris becomes the locomotive of an imaginative narrow gauge train of dancers. Impulses that send Farris up, push the train behind her down into a zigzag queue freighted with support for her cambré en arriere. This dialectic of opposites continues as the train dancers guilelessly hit the yang of her ying and vice versa. Yet, they don’t work at cross-purposes, so much as send a charge of alternating current to energize the dynamic whole.
Diablo’s resident choreographer Robert Dekkers, has an expansive personality, a broad smile, and a million-plus ideas in his head. In a post curtain panel discussion, he says he searches Physics tomes for guidance. Some of Dekkers’ ideas aim at titillating, if trendily, given their gender-challenging bent. They don’t necessarily translate into movement that’s artistically expansive. However, in “cares you know not,” set to an original score by Samuel Carl Adams, Dekkers works the medium more than its message. That medium is an expanse (!) of fabric in which at least three dancers nest, bundle up, and from which, they eventually unfurl themselves.
The piece opens with a tall, slender figure draped in white, who enters in profile. What you wrongly take for a dancer on stilts, turns out to be two of them—Tetyana Martyanova and Justin VanWeest—the first perched on the second’s shoulders. Amanda Farris brings her “condiciones” to bear on the action. A loose translation of the Spanish condiciones is “physique,” but condiciones means so much more. A dancer with condiciones has well-balanced proportions, strong arched feet, good turnout, a long line, sheltering or willowy arms, and is “on” his or her supporting leg when executing turns. As a rule, such dancers recover or hold their balances with no hitches, and have excellent elevation in jumps and extensions. Farris delivers Dekkers’ steps with the care and nourishment they are due. He clusters meditative dancers as little gems hidden in the folds of the cloth now lit in a tawny hue. The fabric takes on an ablutionary role, and all emerge in a state of grace at the finish line.
“Harlequinade Pas de Deux,” minus its coda, to music by Ricardo Drigo, and staged by Christopher Stowell and Lauren Jonas, falls short of what an audience has the right to expect from a Balanchine-trust permissioned interpretation. The jubilant mood is evident more in Rosselyn Ramírez and Derek Sakakura’s effusive smiles than in their steps. Over the half-decade that they have been with the company, these dancers have shone brightly, but in this instance, the signature Balanchine sprightliness, fast and facile, with its molded quicksilver footwork, sadly goes missing. While the duet starts off playful, it sags in the middle, recovers its verve here and there in the variations, but overall, its startup energy ebbed and bled out. Balanchine is a big ask for a pocket-sized company, Even in larger companies, a Balanchine Trust-designated ballet master has to drive the dancers hard, and even a pas de deux of limited scope is no walk in the park when it comes to recreating the “show, don’t tell” stamp that signals authenticity in the Balanchine oeuvre.
A lovely program opener was Christopher Wheeldon’s “Duet from Sea Pictures,” staged by Joanna Berman to Edward Elgar’s fulsome “Where Corals Lie.” Tetyana Martyanova wears a simple light green scoop-necked leotard dress designed by Holly Hynes, and Justin VanWeest is in tan pants and a casual button down shirt. There is an easy, folk-inflected, Morris-Dance quality to their now-jaunty, now lilting gambols, yet the tempi remains balletic throughout, with languorous lines that Martyanova fashions into an elegant ending profile arabesque. Her lithely extended arm describes as much enticing beauty as one could hope for.