• Photo: Bilha Sperling.

Celebrated Masters. Diablo Ballet.

Lauren Jonas, Artistic Director

Walnut Creek, Calif.

May 3-4, 2019

Reviewed May 4, 2019


Diablo Ballet reaches beyond its San Francisco bedroom community setting to recruit dancers from a host of backgrounds, both personal and professional. It brings in choreographers from across oceans or just a tunnel and bridge away. It draws on music from a range of international and native influences. It serves as a world-traveler passport to ballet  for Walnut Creek suburbanites, offering its own distinctive fingerprint.

The company’s personality couldn’t be better showcased than it was in its Celebrated Masters program, Val Caniparoli’s “Tryst” being the exemplar. Jackie McConnell, who in the versatility and stage certitude she brings to the opening port de bras with breath-supported arms, is very much the supple spine of the ensemble. What she does with them predicts the rapturous quality of dancing to come. Her partner, Donghoon Lee, is Diablo’s most recent addition. He comes from Korea National Ballet bearing two gifts: resolute joy, and a disposition to make the stage his home away from home. The pair communicates warmly through intentional gesture, and it looks as if they’ve made these connections over the span of several past lives, with Tryst as their war horse. It’s a piece built to excite everyone—from the neophyte to the wizened critic.  Dressed in Sandra Woodall’s lustrous beige rose-gold costumes, the couple tenders generous respect to the academic proceedings without sacrificing one scintilla of mutuality or creative energy. Vibrant dancing draws the audience in and champions Caniparoli’s argument for heartfelt commitment of the dancers to each other, the music and ultimately, the dance

Because it favors a ballet vocabulary, modern dance choreographer K.T. Nelson’s “Walk Before Talk” is custom tailored to Diablo’s habitat. It’s set to an intriguing score by Michael Nyman, and Nelson has situated it in a modern, yet naturalist context, with Amanda Williams’ autumn-hewn costumes: burnished gold tunics over brown briefs for men, and translucent lace skimmers in dusty mustard, olive, and brown for women. Lighting Designer Jack Carpenter adds more texture. The piece opens with men in profile. They facet into alignment as they slide into the floor and rise to standing. The women arrive, parsing callisthenic movements into lifts that go more straight-knees vertical than horizontal. All dancers have a good ear for the complex musical themes and shifts, and the adept musicality produces a dramatic proclivity for the jazz riffs or joyful Vedic sequences. Execution does not always meet with virtuosic touchpoints. Men fall out of landings; women stray out of their “box” during transitions, but I’ll take a few rough edges over squeaky-clean technique that can sometimes vacate the kind of esprit de corps which abounds in this company.

Joanna Berman’s staging of “Swan Lake Suite” opens up a rare opportunity to take on a famous work that would otherwise carry the daunting challenge of the three or four-act version. Berman’s synthesis retains the recognizable White and Black Swan pas de deux, and the key elements of the men’s variations and snippets from the women’s necessary to communicate the original Marius Petipa libretto. The abridged Peter Tchaikovsky score rescues dark from light, even where the intent was the opposite. The Black Swan pas de deux by Amanda Farris and Raymond Tilton was outstanding. Without overplaying her hand as the scheming coquette, Farris fuses with the music to effect Odile’s galloping perfidy. She courts the streak of betrayal in the now-distracted, now-distractible Siegfried. She “leans in” to her posé arabesque with the modern “assertiveness” of a swan who might have well been coached by the notorious Sheryl Sandberg.  Tilton reaches for and succeeds in capturing the contradictory qualities of a character that many who dance this role fail to connect with so viscerally.

Diablo Ballet is celebrating its quarter-century anniversary and Celebrated Masters stands proudly as the bounty of those many years. The company will lose a few dancers who are retiring, along with its MVP ballet mistress, Mayo Sugano, who leaves the Bay Area for a teaching position at Colorado Ballet School.  New dancers will arrive from as far away as Poland, and in August, the company will launch its own school, the first in Contra Costa County to be associated with a local ballet company. The 2019-20 season promises a new holiday work, a three-act “Coppèlia, and internationally renowned choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Red Riding Hood,” among other acquisitions.

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.