Tag Archives: Diablo Ballet

Diablo Ballet: Why They’re Still Going Strong After 22 Years

Diablo Ballet has a lot to celebrate: This year the company marked twenty-two successful seasons (with a gala evening that opened with moving speeches by City Councilwoman Cindy Silva, and co-founder/Artistic Director Lauren Jonas) and the company has never looked better. While many San Francisco Bay Area dance companies are struggling to stay afloat, this is not the case with Diablo Ballet. The reason is clear: Diablo Ballet brings an eclectic offering of dance to the stage and beyond into the community through its PEEK Program (Performing Arts Education & Enrichment for Kids), the only arts education program of its kind offered by a professional dance company in the Bay Area. The PEEK program has served 65,000 kids since 1995, most recently a group of incarcerated teen girls in the Contra Costa County juvenile justice system.

The program began with Tears From Above, choreographed by Val Caniparoli with music by Elena Kats-Chernin. Dancers Rosselyn Ramirez and Jackie McConnell wore simple dresses in muted tones, dancing a sensual, fiery interplay with bare-chested men, Christian Squires, and Aidan Young. The dancers’ technique was gorgeously fluid, yet they held nothing back as they undulated, leapt, and turned wildly, driven by cellists Joel Cohen and Janet Witharm.

A world premiere of the film We, Divine, choreographed by Robert Dekkers, with cinematography by Walter Yamazaki followed. This simple, elegant film, set to music by Jacob Wolkenhauer, showed the company in a series of stop-motion choreographic vignettes of the dancers in flowing silks (designed by Christian Squires), giving viewers a new way to appreciate the Diablo Ballet.

Sonya Delwaide’s Serenade, choreographed to Ernö Dohnányi’s Serenade For String Trio (Featuring violinist Philip Santos, cellist Janet Witharm and violist Katrina Wreede) was a playful, acrobatic piece, that opened with a trio of dancers and the musicians in an unusual location onstage behind them. Mayo Sugano and Christian Squires were particularly exquisite in the 2nd movement; Ms. Sugano’s delicately arched feet highlighted her precise lines. In the 3rd movement five dancers created an interconnected series of lines and shapes in movement, ending with a humorous tableau, posing in homage to the musicians.

Tetyana Martyanova held center stage in the solo from Diablo Opus, choreographed by Gary Masters, set to music from Cara Mio Ben. Clothed in red, her hand covering her mouth, it was easy to feel her longing, sadness and isolation, although she was surrounded by men. The piece was short, with a sweet ending as Martyanova was carried offstage by a trio of men.

The evening ended with another Diablo Ballet Premiere, the Petipa classic La Fille Mal Gardée, re-envisioned for the company by Lauren Jonas. Although the choreography was new, the black and white costumes gave the piece a timeless look. Amanda Farris and Jamar Goodman were a strong, sturdy duet. Newcomer Jackie McConnell showed strong technique, particularly in her pirouettes. This ballet was the perfect end to the evening; a light, crisp end, like a glass of bubbly.

Diablo Ballet’s 22nd gala was a wonderful retrospective for the company, with something old, something new, and even something blue (the costumes in Serenade). It’s easy to see why they’re still going strong.

5 New Ballets to Love

February is the month we traditionally associate with love, the month when many people run out to buy cards, flowers and chocolate to give to their significant others. But not everyone has a partner and love comes in many other forms besides romantic love. I propose we reclaim February as a month celebrate love in its many forms–from friendships to family–and most importantly as a time to reflect on the things that we most love about life and discover new things to love. In that spirit I’m devoting this month’s blog pieces to discovering new things to love about dance. Here are 5 New Ballets to Love:

LOVE sculpture by Robert Indiana, photo by Hu Totya

LOVE sculpture by Robert Indiana, photo by Hu Totya

Cares You Know Not. This new piece choreographed by Robert Dekkers for Diablo Ballet premiered February 6th, 2015. Although the name of the piece comes from a children’s lullaby, Cares You Know Not explores a bit of the darker side of life, those things we don’t necessarily see (or want to see) lurking at the edges of our awareness. Dekkers worked with composer Samuel Adams (not to be confused with a beer brewer) to create the original score, which perfectly captures the edgier undertones Dekkers was aiming for. But there’s also science involved–watching the three dancers playing off one another, organically weaving in and out of shapes it’s easy to see how Dekkers drew inspiration from quantum physics for the piece. Says Dekkers, “Although scientists can predict the behavior of two particles, when a third is added three’s no telling what will happen.” This search for deeper philosophical meaning and a desire to create a more contemporary ballet language is what sets Dekkers apart from his peers and made him one of DANCE Magazine’s “25 To Watch.”

Heatscape. Justin Peck hit the streets to find new inspiration when he choreographed this new work for Miami City Ballet, premiering in March. He found what he was looking for in Miami’s vibrant Wynwood Walls. Heatscape is a celebration of colors: the dancers wear their own bright basics, the dance patterns mirror the mandalas woven into the murals (by Shepard Fairey and others). The murals have a deeper meaning of community-mindedness for Peck, who seeks to break down walls when it comes to ballet’s reputation as elitist and inaccessible.

Pixel. A piece with 11 dancers in a virtual and living visual environment, combining energy and poetry, technical achievement, hip hop and circus. Created by Adrien M / Claire B’s ( Adrien Mondot and Claire Bardainne) and Mourad Merzouki, Pixel premiered at Maison des Arts de Créteil on November 15th, 2014. This video is a cut of extracts from the actual show shot during the last day of creation on November 14th, 2014. The Adrien M / Claire B Company, is a research and creativity workshop based out of Presqu’île in Lyon, working with digital arts and performing arts since 2004.

Something Sampled. Beginning February 10th, the contemporary ballet troupe BalletNext welcomes flex dancer Jay Donn as a choreographer and featured dancer for its weeklong season at New York Live Arts. Flex is a form of extreme animation; dancers habitually describe trying to recreate special effects from movies like “The Matrix” with their bodies.The connection between the two is Chris Lancaster, an electroacoustic cellist who helped compose the score for 2013 documentary film “Flex Is Kings”. Lancaster wanted to give flex dancers opportunities to experiment outside the battle format, bringing them into projects in a realm he knows well– the world of concert dance. It was a challenge to marry the two forms, mostly due to communication issues. On his first day there, as Jay Donn put it, “I was trapped in a room with three girls and a cello.” He began choreographing, using mouthed sound effects to direct the dancers because he knew almost no ballet terms. Donn says he has tried to break the ballet dancers out of being stiff, to “help them be themselves and be free,” but their art has affected him, too. “It flows through me,” he said. “I wake up in the morning thinking about ballet.” The piece ends with a face off in a duel between Donn and Michele Wiles (a former principal dancer for American Ballet Theater and founder of BalletNext) where flex comes up against ballet. Who will be the victor?

World’s Largest Treadmill Dance Video. While it’s definitely a stretch to call this a ballet, I share this one for pure comic relief. Anyone who’s spent time on the treadmill will appreciate the transformation from hamster-wheel-like torture device to genius choreographic prop. Who knew that a treadmill could take dance to another level? In honor of all the workout-related resolutions we tend to make in January, NordicTrack released this video. They claim it’s the “world’s largest”—and with 40 treadmills involved, they’re probably right. –

Interview With Diablo Ballet’s Artistic Director Lauren Jonas

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

tickets here




Feast For the Senses: A Visual Dance Feast

Most of us are busy getting ready for the Thanksgiving holiday. Maybe you’re one of those people braving the rabid masses at Trader Joe’s or you were one of the smart people who planned ahead and shopped before things started getting manic.

Maybe you’re just looking forward to having a few days off and wearing your pajamas more than you ought to.

However you define Thanksgiving it is meant to be a celebratory holiday, where we give thanks for the blessings in our lives and feast with loved ones. Since I can’t provide a feast that you can taste in real life, I thought I would provide a feast of a different sort: a feast of the senses. Dance style, of course.

Because dance is very much a visual art form, a visual feast is the most appropriate place to begin. As a lover of all things tutu, all things creative and all things color, these tasty morsels are a few of my favorites. Feast and enjoy.

David DeSilva

Post:Ballet does sexy so very, very well, don’t you think? They are just as tantalizing onstage….

photo by RJ Muna

Garrett + Moulton hired designer Margaret Thatcher to create larger-than-life costumes that are truly delicious eye-candy for their recent production of Angels of Enchantment. More about this production here.

Hiromi Yamazaki, photo by Tiffany Fong

Diablo Ballet celebrates their 20th anniversary this spring. This delicious Bay Area company may be small in size, but has one of the most diverse rosters around, with dancers hailing from Tokyo, Venezuela and the Ukraine.

May you feast and enjoy your blessings this holiday.