Diablo Ballet's Balanchine and Beyond is a Crowd Pleaser


February 8, 2020—Now in their 26th season Diablo Ballet has continued to attract and please audiences, and with good reason. Under Artistic Director Lauren Jonas' leadership the company has attracted veteran dancers of reputable companies, such as San Francisco Ballet, Smuin, and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. Saturday's performance of Balanchine and Beyond at Del Valle Theatre in Walnut Creek showed off the company's talents in more ways than one.

"Forward Thinking” by Michael Wells. Photo by Bilha Sperling
"Forward Thinking” by Michael Wells. Photo by Bilha Sperling

First on the program was Forward Thinking, the choreographic premiere of company dancer Michael Wells, formerly a dancer with Smuin. As the first of Wells' ballets, you could have fooled me. I've seen much less polished works made by more experienced choreographers. Forward Thinking was set to a serious score by Justin Levitt for piano, cello, and violin; interestingly, it was Levitt's second score for ballet, and it worked beautifully. Wells created a serious and credible modern ballet for two women and four men that was a pleasure to watch. The piece opened with Jordan Tilton, later joined by Amanda Farris, Felipe Leon, and Roberto Vega-Ortiz. Williams Ramseur's costumes of deep red vests and brown skirts or pants worked well enough, but the colors were maybe a little too muted for this music. The only thing I found unsatisfying about Forward Thinking was that the meaning of its title escapes me. Hopefully it's a prediction that we'll see more of Wells' thinking going forward.

Balanchine's 1970 Who Cares?, set to George Gershwin's familiar 1931 Broadway tunes, was danced by Dajana Klos, Olivia Powell, Jackie McConnell, and Raymond Tilton. As proof of this company's broad skill set, they deftly pulled off Balanchine's mix of formal movements, such as multiple pirouettes and battements, with playful show dancing like soft shoe. Jackie McConnell was especially charming, evidently enjoying every moment of this nostalgic fantasy. In answer to the title question, judging from their enthusiastic reception the audience would care very much to see Diablo perform this piece again.

Bach Suite for Strings, choreographed by Sally Streets, opens with three men and three women in white kneeling and holding hands in a circle. Slowly they raise their arms, the women stand in arabesque, still holding hands with their kneeling partners. They separate into three duets, the men lifting and carrying their partners. Eventually they end in their opening position in a circle. This is a beautiful modern piece done in classical style that was also pleasure to watch.

The dictionary says a berceuse is like a lullaby. In Penny Saunders' Berceuse Jackie McConnell and Michael Wells portrayed a man and woman in the highs and lows of a romantic relationship. Set to sombre music by Benjamin Godard, it began with Wells, in dark grey, standing still with his back to the audience while McConnell, in white, danced near him, sometimes almost frantically, trying to get his attention. They partner, sometimes in unison, sometimes apart, dancing the highs and lows of their life together, at times in unison, at times apart. It ends full circle, with McConnell standing motionless with her back to the audience while Wells dances around her. A serious and poignant piece, this berceuse did not put anyone to sleep.

The Esmeralda Pas de Deux is taken from the full ballet Esmeralda originally choreographed by Jules Perrot in 1844. Esmeralda is based on the heroine of the same name in Victor Hugo's novel Notre Dame de Paris. Saturday's performance was of the 1950 version with choreography by Vladimir Bourmeister. Rather than some of the dark scenes depicted in Hugo's novel and the full ballet, the sections that Diablo presented were joyous and uplifting, literally uplifting with high lifts and pirouettes. Featuring the entire Diablo company in classical costumes of black and green, this work opened with Dajana Klos partnered in amorous flirtation with Raymond Tilton. The high point for the audience was Olivia Powell, supporting leg en pointe and right leg fully extended devant, tapping her tambourine on the tip of her pointe shoe. Many in the audience clapped along with her tambourine. It was fun.

Diablo Ballet's next performance is Coppélia on March 20-21. For more information, see www.diabloballet.org.