Tag Archives: Lauren Jonas

Diablo Ballet celebrates 25 years with Adam’s “Once Upon a Time”

Michael Wells in Julia Adam’s “Once Upon A Time”. Photo by Bilha Sperling

Diablo Ballet turns 25 this season, and that’s something worth celebrating. And celebrate, they did, with a world premiere of a full-length ballet, Once Upon a Time, on March 22 and 23 at the Lesher Center for the Performing Arts. Choreographer Julia Adam has woven a host of fairytale characters—Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and her stepsisters, Alice in Wonderland and the White Rabbit, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and more—into a narrative ballet that’s smart and funny, with broad appeal. The score featured George Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” performed live (and impressively) by the Contra Costa Wind Symphony, director Brad Hogarth conducting.

Michael Wells and Jackie McConnell were adorable and engaging as the Boy and the Girl around whom the story centers. The setting is a schoolroom, with Raymond Tilton their stern schoolmaster. Tilton is tall, and the way he fills a stage with his presence, delivers high entrechat jumps with impeccable feet and soft landings, made him perfect for the role. The band of cheerfully unruly students included Rosselyn Ramirez and Amanda Farris as sisters, Maxwell Simoes and Felipe Leon as brothers, with Jillian Transon and Jacopo Jannelli completing the ensemble.

L to R: Maxwell Simoes, Michael Wells, Jackie McConnell and Raymond Tilton. Photo by Bilha Sperling

Adams, a critically acclaimed choreographer with over 70 works to her name, has concocted a delightful romp of a ballet that holds equal appeal for adults (whew!) as well as children. Buoyant lifts and jumps abounded. Gorgeous partnered leaps from Ramirez and Farris were ably supported by Simoes and Leon (who later charmed the audience with their Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum). Adam’s choreography is both lushly classical and playful, such as when one partnered lift ended with forklifted arms for the lifter, the female’s legs out in the splits, feet flexed. Tilton’s sauté arabesques commenced a “follow the teacher” line of dancers. Wells promenaded in an attitude that sent his back leg over a sitting girl’s head. In the back row, dozed Jillian Transon (a precursor to Sleepy of the Seven Dwarves fame?) There was always something fun to watch. Antics abounded until the moment the Boy received a thump on the forehead that knocked him out, and he woke, à la Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz, in a place populated by fairytale creatures.

The ballet, in two scenes, runs 45 minutes, which proved the perfect amount of time for Saturday afternoon’s family-friendly audience. The kids loved the production; their rapt silence was punctuated only by excited whispers each time a new fairytale character came out. For the adults, subtler entertainment: Raymond Tilton stole the show more than once in his various en travesti roles, including Cinderella’s stepmother, the evil queen from Snow White, the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, where he perfectly balanced hilarity and authority. Transom, new to the company via the San Francisco Ballet, was a grace-laden fairy godmother with lovely piqué arabesques. Ramirez and Farris, always strong, lyrical dancers, entertained as Cinderella’s two stepsisters. Jacopo Jannelli’s White Rabbit was so funny, with rabbit ears that quivered so realistically, they made me laugh like a kid.

L to R: Amanda Farris, Michael Wells, Rosselyn Ramirez, Raymond Tilton and Jillian Transon. Photo by Bilha Sperling

The troupe is small—only ten dancers—and for a ballet packed with multiple fairytale characters, it meant dozens of fast changes in and out of Mario Alonzo’s costumes. A decision to incorporate tie-in-the-back costumes was a good one, clever, effective and efficient. It also helped the kids (okay, and the adults) keep track of who was who, through all the fast changes. Costuming grew purposely convoluted later on, to great comic effect, as stepsisters Ramirez and Farris marched out with both dresses and dwarf beards. Scene one’s schoolroom motif returned when a huge load of papers was released from above like confetti, highlighted by Jack Carpenter’s lighting. And in the closing moments, as the Boy whirls the Girl around, her legs flying out, there’s a second paper drop, this time red bits, against a red glow (think: Red like the Riding Hood), and it was beautiful to watch as the curtain descended. A great ending to a great production.

The program also included a short film, “From the Foundation to the Pillars: A Diablo Ballet Retrospective,” by award-winning filmmaker, Walter Yamazaki, to help commemorate the 25th anniversary of this gem of a company, based in Contra Costa County.

“Looking back on 25 years warms my heart to know that Diablo Ballet’s mission has remained committed to enriching, inspiring, and educating children and adults through the art of dance,” artistic director Lauren Jonas shared in program notes. In this endeavor, the company has been wildly successful. Their PEEK Outreach Program, which began with one classroom in 1995, is now in six schools once per month for the entire school year, serving Bay Point, Hayward, Martinez, Oakland and a special-needs class in Walnut Creek. In addition, they are in their fourth year of working with at-risk teen girls incarcerated in Juvenile Hall. And since 2018, they’ve touched the lives of mentally ill and developmentally disabled individuals at a rehabilitation center in Castro Valley.

How I feel about Diablo Ballet was epitomized by a post-performance moment just outside the auditorium, when the lovely, smiling Jackie McConnell, still costumed as Snow White, squatted down and beckoned two little girls in their own costumes to come over. Their awe and excitement and her genuine warmth were so touching to watch. I stood there, pretending like I was caught in the crush of patrons milling around, but the truth was, I just wanted to keep watching the magic that every member of this company passes on, onstage or off.

                                

PS: exciting news from Diablo Ballet! In a press release, the following was just announced:

(March 26, 2019) WALNUT CREEK — As part of its 25th Anniversary, Diablo Ballet announced today that it will be opening its own ballet school at the end of summer at Performing Academy’s Diablo location in Pleasant Hill. Classes will be offered to students ages three through adult who enjoy dancing as well as those who wish to pursue a professional career in ballet.

The Diablo Ballet School will be the first in the East Bay to be run by a professional ballet company. Under the leadership of Lauren Jonas, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Diablo Ballet and School Principal and company dancer, Raymond Tilton, the School has a dual mission: to train classical ballet dancers who wish to pursue a professional career in ballet and to offer young children and adults in the Bay Area an introduction to classic ballet and the joy of dance by professional dancers.

The school will be located at the Performing Academy Diablo location in Pleasant Hill. This location will also be the new home of Diablo Ballet’s company rehearsals. Classes will range from Pre-Ballet to Adult Ballet classes, including Ballet I, Ballet II, Ballet III, Intermediate and Advanced Ballet. Students will have performance opportunities each year and Intermediate and Advanced Ballet students will be given the opportunity to perform with Diablo Ballet in one program during the Company’s regular season. Registration will begin in May on the company’s website. For information, please call (925) 943-1775 or visit www.diabloballet.org.

Sibling rivalry – when your sister’s a dancer too

The story is as familiar as it is painful to many a dancer. A promotion or a lead role, just within reach, is irrevocably lost, given to another dancer. Someone you admire and respect, someone you might have toiled and danced alongside for years. Now you’re hurting, and all you want to do is go home, grieve, cry, vent, in the security of your home. Only this time it’s more complicated.

This time the other dancer is your sister.

While I myself have five sisters, none shared my passion for ballet while growing up, so as an adult, I decided to explore the situation fictionally. In my 2016 novel, Outside the Limelight, professional dancer Dena, three years her sister Rebecca’s junior, gets the promotion to soloist that Rebecca had been anticipating. The story, if you haven’t yet read it, follows the sisters’ ensuing relationship, through its bumps, challenging circumstances, dramas and traumas, and the ultimate realization that the bond of sisterhood surpasses all others

Real-life ballet sister scenarios play out quite frequently, I’ve since discovered. In a 2013 New York Times article, Patricia and Jeannette Delgado, both principals with Miami City Ballet, discussed their own situation. Much like in my novel, younger sister Jeanette, after years of being the subordinate, excelled extravagantly, prompting dance critic Alastair Macaulay to call her “one of the world’s most marvelous ballerinas.” Patricia, older by two years, was taken aback. In the article, she shares that, “I closed my eyes and opened them, and said, ‘Oh, my God. My sister is amazing,’ I knew she would have opportunities I wouldn’t get, and that was the first time I was dealing with that.” In the long run, however, Patricia credited Jeanette’s success as helping her to elevate her own dancing. “She was blowing me away, and I said, ‘I’ve got to turn it up.’ ” And she went on to do just that. (Read the full article here.)

Ballet sisters Zippora and Romy Karz, who both danced with the New York City Ballet (shown below together, and below that, with their other two siblings) offered their own perspective.

“I am blessed—my sister is my best friend,” said Zippora, the eldest, who rose to soloist rank. “We went through growing-up years, for sure, and I didn’t always turn to her, but she was always there. Romy and I were very different dancers and personalities, and different life happenings, so I don’t think we ever compared ourselves to each other.”

Romy, three years younger, agreed. “I never put myself on her level, and so the competition was not a struggle. I loved being her sister. When I first started at the School of American Ballet, she wouldn’t let me live with her. She wanted me to carve my own place, and for her to have hers, without taking care of me. Within a year, we found great comfort in our relationship with each other, and the desire to live together because we actually wanted to. Being her sister felt like a great honor to me.”

Challenges for ballet sisters can come in other forms. Zippora, who wrote The Sugarless Plum, a memoir chronicling her battle with Type 1 diabetes while dancing, did not share her illness with the other dancers. This increased the sisters’ closeness. “I knew of her incredible struggles with her health,” Romy said. “I knew how hard it was, so I worried a lot about her. That was stressful for me. It was hard to separate from my connection and caring of her, within company life.”

Lauren Jonas, artistic director of Walnut Creek-based Diablo Ballet, had not one but two ballet sisters, growing up. From the family’s home base in San Rafael, the three of them trained at the Marin Ballet. Mindy was five years older than Lauren, Corinne two years younger. All three went on to dance professionally, although Mindy was forced to retire at a very young age due to a bad foot injury that never healed properly. Lauren joined the Milwaukee Ballet after completing training, and Corinne joined the Houston Ballet.

Here, then, is another challenge ballet dancer sisters face: the prospect of being geographically separated. Cuban sisters and principal dancers Lorena and Lorna Feijóo spent their professional careers in San Francisco and Boston respectively. Sisters Maria Sascha and Nadia Khan, Montana natives, are based in Russia and Rome (and have two brothers, also professional ballet dancers, based in London and St. Petersburg). The Jonas sisters dispersed to New York, Milwaukee and Houston.

“It’s hard being in different companies,” Lauren admitted. “Living far apart, not being able to seeing the other dance, after those years of training together. You’re used to having that support right there, and then it’s gone.”

Years later, in an intriguing twist, Lauren co-founded Diablo Ballet, and a few years later Corinne joined the company, the two younger sisters finally dancing together on the same professional stage. This did, however, bring new sister-related challenges: Lauren had to refrain from showing any administrative favoritism toward this new dancer who was also her sister.

Lauren and Corinne Jonas. Photo by Ashraf

I asked Lauren what helped the two of them overcome any sense of competition in their youth. “It helped that we were very different dancers,” she replied. “I was very Don Q, good at fouettés, jumps, pirouettes. Corinne was more Juliet, lyrical and flowing. Although, we looked alike and choreographers liked playing around with that.” In choreographer Sally Streets’ 1997 ballet, Encores, Lauren danced in front of a mirror, where she encountered her mirrored self: her dancing sister.

I asked these ballet professionals what kind of advice regarding sibling rivalry they might offer today’s aspiring ballet dancer sisters. All were in agreement: figure out what you yourself are good at, what makes you unique, and work to improve and refine that.

“We all have to carve out who we are,” Romy said. “It’s a natural thing to feel jealous of someone who has what you want, and that may be better arches, extensions and parts in a ballet, and that may be your best friend, your worst enemy or your sibling. I think it’s healthy to feel what you’re feeling, and then to examine what you can do about it. Harboring those feelings won’t bring you closer to your own goals, but focusing on your own work and keeping your focus on your own goals will.”

Classical Girl (in orange) with her own sisters.

Here are but a few names of professional ballet dancer sisters through the past generation. Can you add to the list?

Maria and Marjorie Tallchief
Patricia and Coleen Neary
Johnna and Gelsey Kirkland
Tina and Sheri LeBlanc
Kathleen and Margaret Tracey
Laura and Elise Flagg
Svetlana and Yulia Lunkina
Leigh-Ann and Sara Esty
Mary Mills Thomas and Melissa Thomas
Zenaida and Nadia Yanowsky

This article first appeared at Dance Advantage with The Classical Girl’s permission.

© 2017 Terez Rose

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 Celebrates 23 Years

It was an evening of celebration and great dance as Diablo Ballet fêted its 23rd anniversary Thursday night at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts. Adhering to Artistic Director Lauren Jonas’ mission to offer diverse and relevant works that inspire and engage, the company presented Sally Streets’ 1994 Three to Tango, excerpts from Petipa’s Raymonda, and Robert Dekkers’ Carnival of the Imagination. The celebration program included a short film, plus a slideshow that commemorated the company’s PEEK outreach program, to live music performed by Minor F Jazz Quartet (comprised of students from the Oakland School for the Arts), all of which demonstrate the wonderful synergy between company and community. That Diablo Ballet thrives at twenty-three years is no small feat, and no coincidence.

The 23rd anniversary is referenced in a charming fashion through Three to Tango. In 1994, choreographer and Diablo Ballet artistic advisor, Sally Streets, set this work on Lauren Jonas in the company’s inaugural season. On Thursday night, pianist Andrea Liguori (who performed it in 1994 too), was joined by by cellist Andres Vera for a lively rendition of Astor Piazzolla’s alluring tango music. New company member Felipe Leon, replacing Jamar Goodman for the performance, dazzled with his clean, articulated movements and focus in this classical-based choreography with Argentine twists. Also new to the company is Oliver-Paul Adams who partnered the reliably excellent Rosselyn Ramirez in a pas de deux with proficiency if not particular ardor. Streets’ stylized blend gave us partnered pirouettes with a knee in parallel passé, some ending in a tango step. Ramirez stretched into a beautiful 180 degree partnered arabesque, and the men’s solo passages showcased their strong scissoring leaps.

Oliver-Paul Adams and Rosselyn Ramirez in Three To Tango, photo by Aris Bernales

Marius Petipa’s 1898 Raymonda, like his earlier creation, The Sleeping Beauty, seems to embody Russian Imperial courtliness and grace. Set to Glazunov, it’s old school classicism at its finest. Thursday night’s performance gave us the Pas de Deux and coda, staged by Joanna Berman, company régisseur and former San Francisco Ballet principal. Raymond Tilton and Jackie McConnell, as the pas de deux couple, mostly succeeded, although a few initial rushed poses kept McConnell from looking fluid, her movements fully inhabited, stately and deliberate. Otherwise, the two were a pleasure to watch on the Lesher Center stage. Costumes designed by Sandra Woodall (and Renee Rothmann, Rebecca Crowell Berke), courtesy of Marin Ballet, looked great. A partnered arabesque released from a challenging balance for McConnell, reminiscent of Aurora’s “Rose Adagio” in The Sleeping Beauty, gave way to a confident, self-supported pose. Tilton, a former San Francisco Ballet dancer, is a perfect fit for classics like this. A solid final partnered pirouette ended the piece impressively for both dancers, and the coda that followed, which included three more couples, a flurry of tutus and brisk, well-rehearsed movement, was well executed.

Diablo Ballet

Jackie McConnell in Raymonda, photo by Aris Bernales

Robert Dekkers’ Carnival of the Imagination, a 2016 world premiere, is set to Camille Saint-Saêns’ Le Carnaval des Animaux, and conjures the rich, colorful inner world of a boy’s imagination. Christian Squires reprised his role as “Seven,” or “Our Protagonist” with the same engaging, theatrical flair as last year. Some roles seemed more refined this year, such as the buoyant gleefulness of Pippas (Jackie McConnell), Seven’s imaginary playmate, which hit all the right buttons for me, without ever feeling over-the-top. I particularly enjoyed McConnell’s red-sneakered, flex-footed leaps, their momentary suspension midair. Standouts this year included “Constellations” a dazzler with fiber optic costumes for the women that, along with Jack Carpenter’s dimmed, dappled onstage lighting, simulated a midsummer’s night. Partnered leaps and lifts (Amanda Farris, Larissa Kogut, Rosselyn Ramirez with Oliver-Paul Adams, Jamar Goodman and Raymond Tilton) looked nothing short of magical. “Colors of the Rainbow,” too, offered visual appeal and strong dancing by Adams, Tilton and Felipe Leon. McConnell and Squires charmed in “The Shadow,” and later were poignant in their depiction of a boy outgrowing his imaginary friend. Dekkers’ choreography flows throughout, engaging and creative. An all-cast pillow fight at the end, everyone now clad in onesie pajamas (all costumes designed by Christian Squires), feathers flying, was just plain fun.

Carnival of the Animals

Christian Squires and Amanda Farris in Carnival of the Imagination, photo by Bérenger Zyla

Twenty-three years as a successful dance company is indeed something to celebrate, and Artistic Director Lauren Jonas had every reason to be proud of this troupe and the full house and enthusiastic audience Thursday night brought. Really, it does the heart good in these times to see a vibrant local community supporting a vibrant dance company. While a trip to Walnut Creek might not prove possible for everyone (good news: they tour the region), Walter Yamazaki’s short films featuring Diablo Ballet give all a chance to see these talented dancers. Thursday night marked the world premiere of Libera; gorgeously produced, with an original score by Justin Levitt, narrated by Jamar Goodman.  Here’s one from 2015, AETERNA XXI created by Yamazaki for their 21st Anniversary celebration, with a gorgeous score by Brian Crutchfield. Enjoy.

New to 2017: Classical Girl Giving

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“Help save the world” sounds like a rather ambitious 2017 New Year’s resolution, so I won’t call it that. But there is this new thing rising in me that I feel compelled to share. (Editor’s note in 2018: that new thing rising produced THIS.)

It all started last spring. With my son turning seventeen, and a trio of Really Challenging Years behind us, something in me began to relax, or maybe wake up, to the fact that this world of ours comes with a host of Really Big Problems to try and help solve. Or maybe my daily mindfulness meditation practice starting yielding its own results. Point being: I heard the whisper of a call.

Now, I will argue that devoting oneself to passive tasks such as writing about the arts is not completely off the mark in the department of “helping to save the world” and/or make it a better place. If everyone spent their time immersed in work they found relevant, nourishing, challenging, important, I’m willing to bet we’d all live on a more peaceful planet.

That said. You tell people you served two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, and it will produce a different reaction from when you tell them you’re a blogger who devotes big chunks of your day to waxing lyrically about the performing arts—preferably the fuddy-duddy classical stuff from the 19th and early 20th century.

Did I tell you I served two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa?

T in Africa2

But that was another life entirely. Decades ago. Writing novels and raising a family claimed that space in my heart, it would seem. Until one day last May, after a Diablo Ballet performance, when I was talking with the company’s artistic director, Lauren Jonas. Art has a way of clearing out my inner clutter to begin with, and it had been a delightful, artful program. Lauren was telling me about a new extension of their PEEK* outreach program. This endeavor, funded by a California Arts Council grant, brought Lauren and PEEK’s associate director, former company dancer Edward Stegge, into Juvenile Hall, where they presented movement classes to at-risk incarcerated 15-to-17 year-old girls as part of their in-house Court School Program.

Diablo Ballet had been one of only eight organizations receiving awards for this highly competitive and limited-funds program, called JUMP StArts*. Lauren told me she’d been thrilled. “When I co-founded Diablo Ballet, back in 1993,” she said, “something like this had always been a part of the plan, the dream.”

Lauren shared a few details about the program, that had begun in mid-July the previous year. Once inside the facility, she and Eddie were screened and fingerprinted, given a list of things they could and could not do. They’d been told what colors they should not wear, questions they could not ask. They had to be accompanied by guards and were warned that some of the girls might have difficulty expressing themselves, and/or might start fights.

And then the once-weekly program started. Not dance classes or lectures, so much as movement creation exercises, discussions that taught the teen girls about themselves, their bodies, the self-esteem within them Lauren believed could be coaxed out, and a healthier self-expression. After just one session, Lauren and Eddie knew they had found something extraordinary. Some weeks they brought a musician along for live music, like Bolivian guitarist Gabriel Navia, which the girls loved. Sometimes they brought other dancers, like company member Amanda Farris, whom the girls had seen on the cover of the Diablo Ballet magazine. Here she was now, beautiful, famous, and so warm, so accessible! Venezuelan company member Rosselyn Ramirez was another great hit with the dancers. During one movement exercise, she assured a particularly difficult girl that the way she was doing the movement was perfect. The girl clasped her hands together and turned to her neighbor. “Did you hear that?” she said in a hushed, awed voice. “She said I was perfect.” Which, when Lauren recounted this to me, made my throat squeeze up.

 

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(*PEEK = Performing Arts Education & Enrichment for Kids)
(*JUMP StArts = Juveniles Utilizing Massive Potential Starting with Arts)

The program ran from July to February. Lauren had already begun searching for additional grants in the hope of keeping the program annual (which they received – yay! – and this second year’s program continues through Feb/early March 2017). She and Eddy agreed that it had been one of the most rewarding experiences they’d ever had.

Her own quiet excitement, enthusiasm, deep commitment, was like a big gong within me. It was a real I want to join the Peace Corps moment, like I’d had at age twenty. It all came rushing back to me, the desire to be more, do more, to try and make a bigger difference in the world.

On my drive home from the performance, a reality check settled in. I’ve come to understand that I am not an extraverted do-er. I had a tough time in the Peace Corps, truth be told. My introverted side took over in a major way and, if I can be honest here, I didn’t do anything noble in the least. My greatest achievement was sticking out my two years and letting the host nationals observe on a daily basis that white, privileged Americans could be bumbling and stupid, make mistakes right and left, and not have any more answers than they did. Outside my teaching hours (English to high school students) I took comfort in writing, being alone. I spent hours journaling, reading, vicariously immersed in someone else’s misadventures, processing and chronicling my thoughts and feelings.

But there’s room in the world for both, right? The world needs the do-ers, the performing artists, activists, leaders and such. But it needs its observers, processors and scribes. Those who can help spread the word and offer support, financial or otherwise.

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Which is what brings me to my 2017 New Year’s resolution. I hereby announce the creation of Classical Girl Giving. I am still in the process of figuring out precisely what this entails, but my thought is to offer a quarterly donation to foundations, companies, choreographers or organizations in order to help support worthy ballet-based [or influenced] dance projects. The inaugural recipient of the Classical Girl Giving project is, no surprise, Diablo Ballet, supporting their PEEK Extension program.

Beyond that? Yikes. I’m a little intimidated. Giving, as it turns out, is harder than just writing a check and handing it over. But the list starts this month, below, and will be added to, quarterly. Hopefully for a long time to come!

Currently Classical Girl Giving favors California and the San Francisco Bay Area, but if you want to recommend a worthy foundation based elsewhere, please do. Are you a choreographer, artistic director, an arts nonprofit administrator who has a candidate to suggest? I’d LOVE your help. You can either contact me privately or leave a message below in “comments.”

2016 Recipients

  • Diablo Ballet/PEEK Extension Program

2017 Recipients

  • Robert Dekkers, artistic director/Post:ballet
  • East Bay Fund for Artists/The McPherson Fund
  • Marika Brussel, choreographer/”From Shadows: a ballet on homelessness”
  • Amy Seiwert’s Imagery/SKETCH Series

2018 Recipients

  • Dancers’ Group/General Fund
  • Miranda Silveira, “Spreading the Love of Dance in the Galapagos” Project
  • Alyce Finwall, Moving Arts Foundation and Artist in Residence Program
  • Leigh Purtill Ballet Company, “Brave Trails Youth Leadership Camp” fund

2018 Recipients

  • Mark Foehringer Dance Project, “Like an Ox on the Roof” and outreach program

For future additions to this list, click on the “Giving” tab above or GO HERE.