photo by Tiffany Bertolami Fong and Michael Malerba
Artistic Director and Co-Founder Lauren Jonas, trained at the Marin Ballet under Maria Vegh and Margaret Swarthout, and then studied under Sally Streets. She performed with the Milwaukee Ballet, the Oakland Ballet, the Southwest Ballet, and toured the United States with the Moscow Ballet, directed by the Bolshoi Ballet’s Vaslav Gordeyev. Since Diablo Ballet’s premiere on March 10, 1994, Ms. Jonas has recruited dancers from around the world to present the finest in contemporary and classical ballets. A firm believer in the need to stimulate the cultural development of future generations, she has provided programs designed specifically for children, through the Ballet’s PEEK Outreach Program, which she co-created. Ms. Jonas’ awards include the 2005 National Philanthropy Day honor, the 2000 Arts and Culture Commission Award of Contra Costa County, and the1998 Contra Costa County Woman of Achievement Award for the Arts. She has served as an advisor on several non-profit boards, and served on scholarship and dance festival committees. Ms. Jonas has guest taught for various schools and colleges throughout California and nationally.
What lead you to create Diablo Ballet? How did it all start?
My cofounder and I heard that stars of the Moscow Ballet were coming to the Lesher Center For the Arts. There was no professional dance out here (at the time). There was opera, symphony and theater, but no dance. We saw how incredibly excited the audience was and afterwards we talked about what if. We spent a whole year plotting what we would want. Our first performance was March 10, 1994. We hired dancers in February of ‘94. We got our non-profit status in June of ‘93. All along we wanted a small company where the dancers were featured and the audience could really identify with everybody and everyone had a strong voice and was different and unique.
Photos by Ashraf
So often that is lost in the bigger companies. What are some other advantages of having a smaller company?
Well… there’s no hiding. Everyone has a lot of responsibility and everyone depends on everyone else. In a larger company people will take a sick day or a personal day; people don’t do that here unless they are really sick because they know everyone is counting on them. There is a real sense of teamwork. What I love about Diablo Ballet is that dancers can perform a solo or a pas de deux but they can also perform as an ensemble and look cohesive together. I like dancers of all different shapes and sizes and looks. Nobody looks exactly the same.
Ms. Jonas rehearsing Diablo Ballet dancers
While I was watching you in rehearsal with your dancers I realized can’t remember ever rehearsing with the artistic directors of any of the companies I worked with because they were so large.
I’ve always loved rehearsing dancers. If the director does not get their hands in here and there… you need to make sure the intention of what you’re trying to project comes through. For me what’s important is artistry and emotion and not just going out there with a smile on your face. That’s why I always hire mature dancers–our youngest dancer is 26. I don’t hire dancers out of schools. I also bring in other people to rehearse dancers: Joanna Berman, Sean Kelly, Christopher Stowell. I respect and admire them and know that they’re going to project what I’m after. If we were a larger company with a larger budget I wouldn’t be here every day but I would be here.
You are one of a very small, select group of female directors. What sort of impact do you think that has on the way a company functions?
I’ve always worked for male artistic directors and a lot of the choreographers I’ve worked with have been male. I know I bring a nurturing component. I’m also very strong with what my needs are. I feel like my job is to nurture the dancers so they feel they are in an environment where they can express themselves artistically and feel free and supported. Ultimately that’s what the audience sees on the stage, that comfort. It’s hard enough. I’ve been in companies– I mean I love ballet so much, just as much as when I was a little girl– and I’ve been in companies where I’ve had to go out on stage and it wasn’t supportive and that’s very difficult. There’s a dichotomy–you love what you do but you’re not being supported–it’s very difficult to go out on stage. You can’t feel free and you’re worried about making a mistake and what could happen if you do.
What is that keeps driving you forward?
I’m coaching dancers and that’s what I really love to do. It’s also our PEEK outreach program (in local public schools). I’m very passionate about that. We are such a partner in the community and we’ve seen over 65,000 school children since our inception. We just adopted two classes in Oakland this year that we go to once a month. We don’t teach them ballet lessons, we teach them self-esteem and how to put their emotions into movement. We adopt title one classes; we’ve gone to one school in Martinez eighteen years in a row. There’s no other arts organization that’s doing outreach like this. We are one of the few dance companies in Northern California that are supported by the California Arts Council’s “Artists in the Schools” Program. That makes us very unique. We are changing the lives of these children. That makes us more of a community anchor rather than just an organization that is here performing.
This is what I really love to do and that’s what keeps me going through hard times. I’m also very stubborn.
Ms. Jonas rehearsing Robert Dekkers
Don’t you have to be? No matter which road you choose in the ballet world it’s not an easy road.
It was never easy for me. I never had the figure. I loved turning and jumping and I was good at those things. It was always very challenging for me but I knew that I wanted it so badly that it happened. I had a long career and I was very happy with that. Transferring it to this–most people have told me they would have given up a long time ago. We have had some tenuous times and have reinvented ourselves many times. But we’ve kept the core of our mission alive.
There was a quote in your literature about the nexus of an artist’s development and the music. Can you expound further on what is important about live performance and what brings people to live performance?
These days I feel it’s less about the artist and more about the technician. What dancers can do these days is amazing. It’s important that the dancers also try to connect so it’s not just about the technique.
What I would say to somebody is if you love it so much that you can’t imagine your life without it, don’t give up. I can’t tell you how many turn-downs I got just because of physique. But I knew there was a company out there for me and there were several. If you really want it badly enough no matter how many rejections, don’t give up. You just keep trying.
How did you deal with rejections?
I just wanted it so badly. I wanted it so, so badly. My sister would come back from Houston Ballet to visit and she’d want to take a class somewhere and I’d say, “Take a class with me I’m giving one in the garage today.” (Laughs). On this concrete floor. I got myself a cd and I just did class when I couldn’t get to one. I just worked and worked and worked. Even though I got a lot of rejection I just knew I had to do it and I didn’t give up.
It didn’t come easily to me. When you are lined up looking at bodies…. I knew I had to be the best I could be and to work on things and once that happened things started coming to me. But I worked for everything.
Diablo Ballet is celebrating their 20th Anniversary. What are you most excited about?
It’s exciting for me to reconnect with our alumni. We’ve formed an alumni committee and we’re meeting regularly. For our March 6th performance we will be given a very special resolution from the state congress and senate and assembly and a film retrospective will be woven through the entire evening. Robert was given a grant to create a new world premiere and he’s using music by Samuel Karl Adams who is the son of John Adams. We are doing the pas de deux from Billy The Kid (which we’ve never done before) as well. And there will be a celebration….
It’s an interesting situation with us because I am also the cofounder. I just know what I’ve done and I feel very blessed that this company has lasted twenty years. It’s always been my dream… always.
Diablo Ballet’s Special 20th Season Celebration, Thursday, March 6th, 2014