Tag Archives: Lauren Jonas

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.

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




Diablo Ballet Creates World’s First Internet Ballet: An Interview w/ Robert Dekkers, Choreographer


Hiromi Yamazaki, photo by Tiffany Fong























The Web Ballet, Diablo Ballet’s newest concept for making ballet accessible will make Diablo Ballet of California the first professional dance company to create an entirely new dance work from ideas suggested by internet users, based on choreography suggestions submitted by individuals all around the world to Diablo Ballet’s Twitter page @DiabloBallet.Cast your vote through Thursday February 14th using Twitter hash tag #DiabloWebBallet and select the music by voting on Diablo Ballet’s YouTube page: http://www.youtube.com/user/diabloballet.

After submissions close, Robert Dekkers, Diablo Ballet dancer, Artistic Director of San Francisco’s Post:Ballet, and one of Dance Magazine’s 2011 25 to Watch and Lauren Jonas, Diablo Ballet’s Artistic Director, will select seven choreographic suggestions. Dekkers will then have two weeks to utilize all of the winning ideas and create a new dance work.

I recently caught up with Mr. Dekkers for the following interview:

GC: You are charged with choreographing Diablo Ballet’s web ballet. What are your feelings on entering this project?

RD: When they approached me with the idea I was interested. I’ve been exploring limitations and I thought it was a great opportunity to impose those limitations on myself and see what paths I take to produce the final work… how they affect me and the creative process. I’m hoping to get some great ideas and off-kilter ideas. For me it’s a great challenge, something new, exciting and different.

GC: How do you see yourself putting the project into action?

RD: We are accepting suggestions until February 14th. At that point we’ll choose 7 suggestions and I’ll use those to create the final piece. I won’t be working with the dancers until February 15th. I’ll have less than 3 weeks to make the piece and get it on stage, which is a very quick time frame. The piece will be 8-10 minutes, not a full evening-length work, but still a lot of material to cover in such a short period of time… and some of the dancers are working on other pieces, not just mine, so that will be definitely be tight.

Normally I start my conceptual process months out, doing things to prepare…listening to music, viewing museum exhibits, things related to the topic I’m exploring. This time I have to be patient. But the project is about limitations and how we put them to use. The interesting piece is:how we are going to use these possibly disjointed ideas and make them one cohesive pice that revolves around a common theme and has a structure? It will be interesting. I’m a little nervous, actually. (Here he is at work in the studio):

I liken it to the show Project Runway: when they’re given $1000 and a dream budget it always turns out rather plain and boring and when they’re given $10 and four apples and a banana peel they always make things that are just amazing. This is my four apples and a banana peel kind of piece. I’m hoping that not having my usual opportunity for all the resources and time will push me to whittle through the fat and delve into the heart of the piece. The challenge will push me further and I’ll make something special… so that even after the web ballet project is over it’s a piece that can be done again and has substance to it. As a choreographer I want to make sure that the final work is indicative of my taste and choreography.

Mayo Sugano & Derek Sakaura, photo by Ashraf


GC: Just to touch on what you said about the four apples and a banana peel theory… I have a friend who says that good art is often happy accidents. When we are taken out of our normal way of doing things we come up with something totally different.

RD: Yes! Can you put quotes around that and say that I said it? Just kidding. But it’s so true. The little in-between moments when you’re not sure… the question marks… those are the magical places where the greatest things can happen. Something might accidentally happen and it redirects the whole piece – you get that “aha” that you were searching for.

GC: Is there anything else you want to share?

RD: I did pick the 3 pieces of music, so they not strange to me. They are all Classical and I have choreographed to them in the past. One of the pieces I made my 2nd ballet to when I was 17. Now that I’ve grown as a choreographer and developed my own movement sensibility and vocabulary I’m excited to come back to one of these pieces of music and have a new take on it and have to go a different route. I have a special place in my heart for these pieces of music that I grew up to.

The Web Ballet will be presented as part of Diablo Ballet’s Inside the Dancer’s Studio series March 1st and 2nd at the Shadelands Arts Center Auditorium in Walnut Creek, CA.  The winning suggestions will receive tickets to the performance and a photo from the created work, autographed by Dekkers.

Robert Dekkers was recently named a ’25 To Watch’ artist, by DANCE Magazine, and has danced professionally with Ballet Arizona, ODC/Dance San Francisco, and Company C Contemporary Ballet before joining Diablo Ballet in 2011. He has performed in works by choreographers including George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, August Bournonville, KT Nelson, Maurice Causey, Brenda Way, Val Caniparoli, Lar Lubovich and Charles Molton. Mr. Dekkers has also been choreographing for over a decade, presenting works at venues including the Tanzsommer Festival in Vienna and the Ballet Builders Showcase in New York City. He was resident choreographer for Novaballet before founding his own company, Post:Ballet, in San Francisco. Since launching Post, he has created numerous critically acclaimed collaborations including When in Doubt, Colouring, Mine is Yours and Interference Pattern. His first work for Diablo Ballet, Happy Ending, premiered in May of 2012. In addition to his work as a choreographer and dancer, Mr. Dekkers also holds a degree in business from Rio Salado College