The San Francisco Bay area has gone mad this week over the gladiatorial contest known in the vernacular as the ‘Super Bowl.’ Amid the hoopla preceding Sunday’s faceoff between godlike quarterbacks Cam Newton and Peyton Manning, George Balanchine’s Apollo appeared on the stage of Walnut Creek’s Del Valle Theatre to trace the making of a supreme athlete. The hunky young Apollo, restless and awkward, is given to pouting over his lyre, like many a teenage boy with his guitar. Coached by three Muses, he learns to rein in his explosive temper, harness his physical gifts, and master the world around him.

The ten-member Diablo Ballet fielded a quartet who at first glance seemed ill-matched (in particular, Tetyana Martyanova who, in the role of Calliope, towers over the other two Muses, and over Christian Squires’ Apollo.) But they performed this epochal work with skill and exuberance, striking a pleasing balance between playfulness and solemnity. 

As Apollo, the lithe, mercurial Squires learns to make electricity, alternately clenching his fists then stretching his fingers – a gesture that Balanchine said was inspired by a blinking electric sign at London’s Piccadilly Circus.  Reaching for Terpsichore (Amanda Farris), he transmits an electric current from his fingertips to hers before she guides him through a duet of noble purity.

The elegant Farris possesses a mischievous attack, evident in the abandon with which she tosses her back leg in floor-skimming jetés, and in her rapid-fire piqués with hips thrust forward. These, and the skidding, shuffling, and bent-knee movements, and the occasional breezy syncopations, all betray the infiltration of jazz into this groundbreaking 1928 work. While Terpsichore exults in her power over Apollo, Calliope is preoccupied with the fading of her poetic inspiration. Martyanova, with her big eyes and expressive upper body, conveys this anxiety with a nice comic touch. And she gives a luscious finish to her movements, her preternaturally long limbs and long, supple torso etching glorious lines and curves. Rosselyn Ramirez as Polyhymnia, the muse of mime, is splendidly fiery and stern. Though Ramirez is diminutive in comparison to Martyanova, they synchronize perfectly in their breakneck duet, ripping off a diagonal of whipping turns at nerve-rackingly close quarters. Toward the close, the three Muses take a break from their exertions. They sit on the ground with one leg extended, their heads thrown back, their bodies relaxed yet taut, like bathing beauties on a beach, who know a photographer is nearby. One by one, they slowly lift their outstretched legs, pointed toes making electrical contact with Apollo’s fingertips. He offers them the circle of his arms through which they entwine theirs and pull themselves up off the floor onto their pointes. A miracle of steely, geometric delicacy.

In contrast to the austere whiteness and aloofness of Apollo, Tina Kay Bohnstedt’s My Way, set to a wordless arrangement of the Sinatra classic for cello and piano, is mysteriously affecting. Freed from the heavy-handed lyrics, Jamar Goodman and Raymond Tilton, in black pyjamas, glided and spun, fell to earth then soared, tracing generous arcs in the air – their faces unfathomable, they could have been angels of death, or shadows of heroes long gone. For the most part they danced in dramatic unison, in a tight orbit, like ice dancers, required to remain no more than two arm lengths apart. While Goodman and Tilton remained an enigma, Aileen Chanco and Janet Witharm, on piano and cello, played with their hearts on their sleeves. The choreography expertly avoids cliché, serves up the unexpected, and leaves us wondering.

Robert Dekkers’ Milieu proved mysterious in a different vein. The piece reveals a somewhat fearsome tribe in an illusory jungle conjured up by David Robertson’s tenebrous lighting design, recreated by Jack Carpenter. The ensemble display fearless athleticism as well as drop-dead chic. Clad in sleek, coruscating tribal under armour (by the multi-talented Christian Squires), the creatures in this tribe seem to be constantly on the lookout for threats to their security. They hunt and gather, they bathe in imaginary waterfalls, they have sex – all to the shimmering sounds of Daniel Berkman’s score, which summons up myriad life forms in the primeval undergrowth and variations on weather. (Once voices surface, however, singing ponderous lyrics like “we can find our way,” the score loses some of its dangerous magic.) Playing live on the West African kora – like the young Apollo on his lyre – with various electronic accoutrements, Berkman was meant to be revealed onstage, but a malfunctioning drape kept him hidden on Friday night.

There is a humanity and a biting wit to Dekkers’ work that sets it apart from others in a similar genre. Toward the end of Milieu, Goodman, Tilton and Aidan DeYoung repeatedly propel the women of the ensemble backward by boosting them straight up in the air and setting them down a few paces back – is this an act of protectiveness as they sense an enemy approaching, or a desperate comic gesture of men trying to put women “in their place”? At the end, the ensemble turn their backs on a couple who appear to have died of mysterious causes, and move on. It is curiously heartbreaking.