Tag Archives: Joanna Berman

Diablo Ballet is 24 years strong

Diablo Ballet has done it again, and the company has never looked better. Wait. Didn’t I say that last year? But it’s true—last Thursday’s anniversary gala performance seemed to be presenting Diablo Ballet at its strongest, its most versatile. The roster currently features ten dancers; in past years it’s been nine, and the addition of one allowed for this very cool quintet of couples ending the night’s performance in the Swan Lake Suite. But that’s jumping ahead. Let me back up.

Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Performing Arts was the venue for the company’s 24th Anniversary Performance last week. An annual tradition, it’s like ballet’s version of a small-plate dining experience. No intermissions, instead a few minutes’ pause between every work. The dance pieces themselves are never overlong and leave one hungering for more, which soon follows. A welcome speech from artistic director Lauren Jonas, a charming slideshow chronicling the company’s community outreach PEEK program, accompanied by live music (Minor F Quartet from Oakland School for the Arts), and the audience was then treated to five works and one short film. Satisfying fare, indeed.

Jackie McConnell and Christian Squires in The Blue Boy. Photo by Bilha Sperling

Trey McIntyre’s “The Blue Boy,” is set to the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which is so elegant and beautiful, it adds a velvet veneer to the sharp, articulated passages in this classically-based work. The title refers to the famous 18th century Gainsborough portrait (you’ve seen it before, trust me). Christian Squires met every challenge McIntyre’s fast-moving choreography flung his way. Amanda Farris joined him, lyrical and with lovely soft landings. Jackie McConnell was a strong player, too, as the trio danced their way through partnered lifts, turns and playful quirks.

After Rosselyn Ramirez’ impassioned solo in Salvador Aiello’s Solas, a piece that spoke of loss, rage, sorrow, aided by Jack Carpenter’s moody lighting, Sonya Delwaide’s Trait d’union took to the stage. Set to Gabriel Fauré’s “Élégie,” the choreography is inventive and distinctive, with elegant lines. In the opener, Felipe Leon’s tilt, nearly falling into Alex McCleery, commenced the piece with great, creative energy. Arms were flung out, movements expansive. At one point, Leon leapt, caught midair by McCleery. Very impressive, as was the duo’s chemistry, their absorbed interaction. Here, too, Jackie McConnell was a strong third member to this pas de trois. Andres Vera’s cello and Robert Mollicone’s piano added a nuanced depth to the equation. Delwaide’s choreography finds that sweet spot I so love, of classical-meets-contemporary. (I blogged about her 2015 Serenade Pour Cords de Corps HERE.)

Alex McCleery, Jackie McConnell and Felipe Leon – Trait d’union. Photo by Bilha Sperling

Resident choreographer and Post:Ballet artistic director Robert Dekkers’ work always fascinates, and “Sixes and Seven” is no exception. It’s set to Philip Glass’s music—a choral piece with overlapping speech—and featured solo work by Christian Squires, who impresses me more each time I watch him dance. His total commitment to the role, the perfect timing of pauses, taps, spins, were fascinating to watch. The idiomatic term, “at sixes and sevens” can be translated as “in a state of disarray and confusion.” Was this Dekkers’ intent? (Certainly the music, with the quirky voice overlay, contributed.) You be the judge. Following is an excerpt from an earlier performance that features Squires and a second dancer, Jessica Collado. Susan Roemer’s costume (yes, they are wearing something) makes its own stunning statement (which would be: wow, what beautiful bodies – and ditto for Squires in his performance last week).

Sixes and Seven (excerpts, 2014) from Post:Ballet on Vimeo.

The night’s performance ended on a high note with selections from Swan Lake — the White Swan pas de deux; the Black Swan pas de deux and variations, staged by company régisseur, Joanna Berman. Larissa Kogut and Michael Wells impressively performed the White Swan pas de deux, no easy feat. It’s amazing, the breadth of talent and versatility this company has. Partnered pirouettes were solid, lifts were assured. Kogut provided all the appropriate Odette nuances, the demure expression, the arm flutters, the tiny head quirks, the foot beating sur le cou de pied during a partnered promenade. Wells was there for her through every step and lift.

Larissa Kogut and Michael Wells – White Swan Pas de Deux Photo by Bilha Sperling

Jordan Nicole Tilton (San Francisco Ballet fans will remember her as Jordan Hammond) is a welcome addition to the Diablo roster this season, and paired beautifully with another former San Francisco Ballet dancer, Raymond Tilton. The couple (offstage, too; they are married) danced the role with the strength and theatricality it required. This is a deceptively challenging pas de deux, ramped up a notch from its White Swan equivalent, with its more aggressive pirouettes, leaps, lifts, and sometimes the couple struggled. But as if to right an earlier mistimed passage, they finished the pas de deux strongly, nailing the last iconic pose of the adagio, which thrilled the audience.

Jordan Tilton and Raymond Tilton – Black Swan Pas de Deux. Photo by Bilha Sperling

Berman’s adapted staging turns the Black Swan pas de deux coda into an ensemble variation, which worked great and brought all ten company dancers onstage. Christian Squires knocked out a set of turns à la seconde, whipping around expertly, filling that craving anyone in the audience might have had for the thirty-two-fouetté series. Individual dancers and couples shot onstage, spun, leapt, and dashed off to Tchaikovsky’s propulsive score. The closing tableau, five sets of dance couples in matching black tutu and costumes, felt so charming, so right for this talented, versatile boutique company.

In an era characterized by struggling arts organizations, Diablo Ballet has continued to deliver for twenty-four years. Credit for this goes to artistic director Lauren Jonas, not just for her hard work and dedication, but her ability to motivate others: not just the dancers but the administrative and executive staff; the Board of Directors; the community, which includes people of all ages. (The company has a teen board – how smart and cool is that?) It’s a fine example of what works in the arts these days, and I hope other companies, small and large, take note.

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*About that short film, a now-annual treat. This year’s world premiere is called Spiritus. Produced and directed by Walter Yamazaki, as in previous years, and likewise, a commissioned score by Justin Levitt. Last year’s was the award-winning Libera. Check out this stunning trailer.

Diablo Ballet’s “Celebrated Masters”

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The dazzling world of the imagination; an exploration of the mythic through movement; Shakespearean drama lushly interpreted – these are the worlds revealed in “Celebrated Masters,” Diablo Ballet’s final program in their 22nd season. Saturday afternoon’s performance at Walnut Creek’s Del Valle Theatre reminds me how worth the effort it is to catch one of this troupe’s shows.

Gary Masters’ Mythic Place conjures a sense of sacred ritual and community. Set to a percussion score by Carlos Chavez, arranged and performed onstage by Greg Sudmeier, it delivers its message in movement that’s both primal and contemporary. Masters, founder and Co-Artistic Director of sjDANCEco, has long been associated with the Limón Dance Company, the foundation and its projects, which shows in the angular yet fluid choreography. There are turns with arms in square shapes, long, emotive reaches, leaps that lunge. The cast of five dancers connects in center, touching, before reeling outward in turns and jumps. Memorable was the way Tetyana Martyanova threw her whole body into a curve, and how Rosslyn Ramirez colored her movements with a powerful focus and gaze. Three newcomers to the company this season—Raymond Tilton, Jamar Goodman and Jackie McConnell completed the quintet. The men’s strong presence, in particular, seems to have raised the bar on this boutique company’s high standards. Saturday afternoon’s performance wasn’t flawless; unison movements sometimes fell short of synchronicity, but the live music and Renee Rothmann costumes—leotards in vivid colors of red, orange, yellow, green and blue—helped the dancers achieve a satisfying end result.

Christian Squires and Amanda Farris; Photo by Bérenger Zyla

Hamlet and Ophelia; Dancers Christian Squires and Amanda Farris; Photo by Bérenger Zyla

Val Caniparoli’s dramatic Hamlet and Ophelia pas de deux provided a distinctly different flavor, right down to the dappled, dreamy lighting (Jack Carpenter after Dennis Hudson), and lush orchestral music by early 20th century composer Bohuslav Martinu. Sandra Woodall’s elegant costumes completed the theatrical statement. Christian Squires and Amanda Farris executed it beautifully, under the guidance of stager Joanna Berman, on whom the 1985 San Francisco Ballet premiere was set. Both dancers were well suited to their roles, and gorgeous to watch. This is a dramatic, and highly athletic pas de deux. Caniparoli, former principal and resident choreographer of the San Francisco Ballet and in great demand worldwide since, keeps his choreography thoroughly classical, yet fresh, propulsive. The piece ends as it began, Ophelia bourréeing on Hamlet’s long, long cape as he walks, which is, in and of itself, artful, imaginative, mesmerizing to watch. In the closing moments, the end of the cape becomes paler, more diaphanous fabric, like clouds, or the froth of churning water—the waters in which Ophelia will drown.

Here’s a taste for you:

The program closed with resident choreographer Robert Dekkers’ Carnival of the Imagination, set to Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Le Carnaval des Animaux.” Its opening moments feature Our Protagonist, a boy (Christian Squires), and the Imaginary Friend he has just dreamed up. Behind them, an open wooden treasure chest oozes fog and mystery, all against an orange lit backdrop. It promises exciting things ahead, and boy, it delivered. Raymond Tilton’s Dragon was powerful, impressive. Tilton filled the stage with his dancing, his fine technique, his presence. Formerly from the San Francisco Ballet, his skill shows it. Aiden DeYoung’s Panda grin felt a bit too slapstick, but boy, did the kids love his dance. Jackie McConnell’s portrayal of the Imaginary Friend grew more nuanced as it went on, manic glee replaced by other emotions, such as her sorrowful withdrawal when the Protagonist began to ignore her. Squires, throughout, entertained as he cavorted, pranced, engaged, resisted, conjured up, and shrank from these vivid creatures borne of his imagination. It was darling. Even his dull pajama onesie costume worked, the other, splendid costumes outshining him, of course, because when doesn’t imagination outshine reality? All the costumes—thirty in all—superbly designed by Squires himself, were full of color and imagination. Tetyana Martyanova stole the show not once but twice, as the Unicorn and later as the Butterfly. Gasps of delight could be heard from younger audience members, when Martyanova emerged as a gleaming, sparkling unicorn, in a sleek, opalescent unitard that made her look as though she’d been dipped in liquid pearl. And again, appearing as a butterfly, carried on and emerging from its chrysalis, to the unforgettable cello strains of “The Swan,” she dazzled, with her clean, beautiful classical lines.

Dancers from L to R: Christian Squires, Jamar Goodman & Tetyana Martyanova; Photo by: Bérenger Zyla

Dancers from L to R: Christian Squires, Jamar Goodman & Tetyana Martyanova; Photo by: Bérenger Zyla

Rosselyn Ramirez charmed as the Tortoise, with wonderful attention to detail in moving precisely like a reptile, steps measured and exact. “Constellations” was gorgeous and inventive, the females sporting pale costumes topped with a web of tiny LED lights, glowing under Jack Carpenter’s lighting. Jamar Goodman, Mayo Sugano and the aforementioned DeYoung, Tilton, Martyanova and Ramirez, made this piece pure magic. Amanda Farris danced a compelling “Phoenix” and In “Raindrop/Drip,” Mayo Sugano and Jamar Goodman, a former American Ballet Theatre dancer, shone. The whole crew assembled for the finale, now clad in animal onesie pajamas, like kids at a sleepover, running in with pillows in hand. It was so gleeful, infectiously fun, it was impossible not to grin through it all. A pillow fight, feathers flying, pillows thrown in the air, timed to the millisecond as they landed on the ground in unison and eight heads followed. What a clever, fun ending to a clever, fun ballet.

I am doubly appreciative of companies like Diablo Ballet in the wake of Ballet San Jose’s recent demise after thirty years in the South Bay. It’s no surprise or stroke of luck that Diablo Ballet is going strong as they finish their 22nd year. Credit goes to Artistic Director Lauren Jonas, her dedication, intelligent programming, insight into what works and what won’t, and the way the company reaches out and supports the community that, in turn, supports them. Their outreach program, PEEK, should serve as instruction and inspiration to arts organizations and businesses everywhere. The success of a recent expansion of the PEEK program into the juvenile hall system is so impressive and uplifting, I’m going to save that story for a blog of its own. (Which, in 2017, you can find HERE.)  In the meantime, hats’ off to Jonas, Diablo Ballet’s extraordinary dancers, and all who collaborate to keep this company thriving. Another performance, program and season done right!

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Enticing Diablo Ballet

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I’ll say this: Diablo Ballet knows how to entice. And their enthusiasm is infectious. As I parked my car and headed toward Walnut Creek’s Del Valle Theatre last Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t help but enjoy the cheerful anticipation of others descending from their own cars, walking briskly toward the entrance, decked out in various levels of dress up (etiquette: wear whatever makes you feel happy). No, this isn’t the San Francisco Ballet, nor San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. It’s not Walnut Creek’s svelte Lesher Center for the Arts. But Diablo Ballet continues to find something that works, and works well, in their 21st season and their “Enticing Beauty” program.

The program commenced with a pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s dreamy Sea Pictures, staged by Joanna Berman and set to music by Edward Elgar. I felt that momentary jolt, that occurs in a new venue when you realize just how close (or not) the dancers are to the audience, and your ears, as well, must adjust to the recorded music levels (maybe too loud?). But Tetyana Martyanova and Justin VanWeest offered a solid performance of this tender pas de deux, one that explores love and imminent departure, to gorgeous music. Martyanova is a lovely dancer, graceful in her sea-green leotard and skirt (costume design by Holly Hynes). Jack Carpenter’s stage lighting, too, with its marine hues, served the mood well.

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A pas de deux from Balanchine’s 1962 Harlequinade was next on the program. Balanchine created this as a revival of sorts to Marius Petipa’s own Millions d’Arlequin, in the commedia dell’arte style. While visually a light-hearted, playful piece, it’s a difficult pas de deux in that it’s easy for “playful” to degenerate to sloppy, or camp. The female, especially, must have razor sharp elegance and strong technique supporting the playfulness. Dancers Roselyn Ramirez and Derek Sakakura proved up to the task. The partnered pas de chat lifts, with Ramirez’ feet tucked up perfectly were very cat-like and satisfying to watch. A minor slip-up into a partnered step was deftly covered with unfaltering smiles. The female solo — a real workout, it should be noted — was finely executed, with a strong, clean piqué-and-pirouette-turn passage. Sakakura’s solo was also satisfying, if not “wow” – blame it on the black face mask that is part of the costume and steals, somehow, from the full effect, as did his costume’s gauzy balloon sleeves. Roy Bogas at the piano provided excellent live musical accompaniment, although placement of the piano at a less obtrusive angle to the audience might have brought a better aesthetic sense.

Rosslyn Ramirez, Reflexiones. Photographer: Bérenger Zyla

More successful melding of music and dancer came when Ramirez returned later in Reflexiones, a solo dance, accompanied by classical guitarist Gabriel Navia. A delight to watch and hear, with Navia’s playing giving the piece a spicy infusion. Choreographed by Sean Kelly, the piece was inspired by reflections on Venezuela. Dimmer lighting suited the piece well, and Ramirez’ costume whirled around her like a diaphanous scarf as she leapt, spun, ever moving, to the strains of Isaac Albéniz’ “Asturias” (also called, and recognizable, as “Leyenda”).

I liked hearing backstory on the program’s third piece, cares you know not, for this, my second viewing of the ballet. I learned the title phrase comes from a lullaby that Robert Dekkers, choreographer-in-residence for Diablo Ballet, remembered as a child. The long, dun-colored jersey fabric that covers the dancers in the opener, stretching like a giant worm across the stage, suggests a well-loved blanket from childhood. I liked, as well, the implication beyond the title, of the ominous: maybe you don’t want to know about the things of which you are blissfully unaware. This helped me find more meaning in composer Samuel Carl Adams’ eerie, often discordant music. (The little girl behind me kept asking, “Daddy, why is it making those sounds?”) Tetyana Martyanova and Justin VanWeest, in their second run of the night, here became exceptional, finding the art and beauty within the movement that lent the piece the softness it needed. Amanda Farris, new to the company this season, made a great third member of the trio as the three of them stretched, separated, came together, retreated, via rolls and lifts, all in a dreamy, languorous state, aided by the undulations of the dun jersey/blanket.

cares you know not - Photographer: Bilha Sperling

cares you know not – Photographer: Bilha Sperling

Sonya Delwaide’s world premiere of Sérénade pour Cordes et Corps closed the program, a highly enjoyable melding of contemporary and classical. It featured a live string trio (Janet Witharm, cello; Philip Santos,violin; Katrina Wreedie, viola) performing Ernö Dohnányi’s “Serenade in C major for String Trio.” The trio of dancers in the first movement came onstage side by side with the musicians, an adorable, innovative opener, particularly when you realize the title of the ballet translates into English as “Serenade for Strings and Bodies.” The music sounded great and the dancing was pure pleasure to watch, enough contemporary for those who like that sort of thing, enough classical for those of us who lean that way. The end result: clean classical lines within contemporary twists and intertwinings. Robert Dekkers, a senior company member, is always a powerhouse with his energy, impeccable technique and 500 watt smile, and here was no exception. Derek Sakakura, too, delivered a strong performance (no mask!). The trio of new company members, Amanda Farris, Christian Squires (formerly Smuin Ballet) and Ludmilà Campos, blended seamlessly, strong in both ensemble work and individuality. Ludmilà Campos is a gorgeous classicist with strong, pliant feet and enviable extensions. Having previously danced with San Francisco Ballet, Royal Ballet of Flanders and Hong Kong Ballet, she’s an appealing addition to Diablo Ballet’s roster of dancers.

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A “meet the artists” talk and Q&A followed immediately after the program. It was interesting to observe how almost all the patrons remained in their seat to listen. I’m reminded that these are people who genuinely care about Diablo Ballet and the dance they are watching. A good number of people had brought children, too, which is always a gratifying sight to see. A Diablo Ballet performance really does provide an ideal setup for exposing your kids to the arts. The dance and music engage, the venue feels enough like a “real” theater experience, the program is short, at one hour (plus twenty-five minutes for the talk afterward). And you get the kids to come with the lure of “free cake” afterwards. A win-win situation. Like I said: trust Diablo Ballet to entice. And with “Enticing Beauty,” they’ve created another winning program.

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Diablo Ballet will be celebrating its 21st Anniversary with a celebration performance on Thursday, March 26th at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.  The performance will be followed by a Gala dinner with the dancers at Scott’s Garden, walking distance from the Lesher Center. Or check out their return to the Del Valle Theatre when the season concludes with “Celebrated Masters,” May 8th and 9th.