Rosselyn Ramirez and Derek Sakakura © Diablo Ballet
Rosselyn Ramirez and Derek Sakakura
© Diablo Ballet

Diablo Ballet presented its 20th anniversary celebration in the unique fashion you’d expect from a company that defines itself not just by quality but innovation. Their marketing motto: Be creative. Be real. Be loud. Their strategies: use social media to interact, engage, involve the online community. They were the first dance company to solicit “text-perts” (audience members who’d tweet their thoughts during a performance), and in 2013, première a ballet created via suggestions from the internet. No surprise, then, that Thursday night’s performance at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts should turn multi-media, with a film retrospective of the past twenty years. 

Following a heartfelt welcome speech by Lauren Jonas, artistic director for nineteen of those twenty years, the evening’s program commenced with “Waltz of the Dancers,” a brief, charming nod to the past: a dozen Diablo Ballet alumni dancers (including Jonas herself), dressed in street clothes, waltzing to music composed and performed by pianist Justin Levitt. It was charming to watch; Karen Portner Lapointe, in particular, is still clearly a gorgeous dancer. 

The night’s film retrospective, shown in vignettes through the evening, encompassed Diablo Ballet’s twenty year history and included commentaries by ballet world luminaries such as former San Francisco principal Joanna Berman, Christopher Stowell, former director of the Oregon Ballet Theatre, as well as Diablo Ballet dancers, both current and retired. An archival clip of a 2010 performance of the Act I pas de deux from Lady of the Camellias, choreographed by Val Caniparoli, featuring dancers Tina Kay Bohnstedt and David Fonnegra, morphed into the real thing a few minutes later as the screen rose and the stage brightened to reveal the two dancers. Caniparoli has set his choreography to a dreamy, sensuous Chopin, and the effect is delicious. Bohnstedt, a Diablo Ballet alum, at 44, has grace, lyricism and technique that would put much younger dancers to shame. With her beautiful, articulated feet and supple, full-body extensions, her work with partner Fonnegra was nuanced and satisfying.

Lady of the Camellias © Diablo Ballet
Lady of the Camellias
© Diablo Ballet

In the next film vignette, Kelly Teo’s Dancing Miles, to music by Miles Davis, segues once again from archival footage to the real thing onstage. With brisk ensemble work by Jennifer Dille, Rosselyn Ramirez, Robert Dekkers, David Fonnegra, Derek Sakakura and Edward Stegge, this one’s a fun, sassy, rather uncomplicated crowd-pleaser. (Choreographer Teo is a Diablo Ballet alum, as well.)

The night offered new, forward-thinking fare as well, including a world première of cares you know not, created by company member Robert Dekkers, recently named Diablo Ballet’s resident choreographer. Dancers appear – or at least their feet do – beneath an enormous dun-colored jersey drape that conjures up the image of something you might find on the African savannah. The fabric stretches, stretches, and disgorges dancers from beneath, who undulate and interact and snake their way through a series of sensuous pas de deux and pas de trois interludes. The music is new, as well – a commission by composer Samuel Carl Adams, the score calls for eight cellos and electronics. The end result is intriguing and eclectic, calling to mind North African or Australian Aboriginal music, sometimes too scratchy and too close (to the mic) for comfort. At times it worked well with the choreography, but other times it seemed to compete with, not enhance, the dancers’ efforts. I found Dekkers’ work to be weirdly beautiful and satisfying, however, particularly with the creative use of the long, dun-colored swath of fabric that, in the dancers’ hands, became like a living thing itself, swishing and undulating into ever-shifting shapes on the floor. There was, further, great interplay in this piece between dancers Tetyana Martyanova, Mayo Sugano and Justin VanWeest. 

New for the company, as well, was the sweetheart pas de deux from Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid, an instant classic for the young Loring, back in 1938, with music by another relative unknown of that time, Aaron Copland. Here, I felt a certain inertia and disconnect between the two dancers, which might have had to do with the story line: he is an outlaw and she is his sweetheart, appearing to him in a dream. Costumes, on loan from Louisville Ballet, didn’t help the equation; they seemed mismatched. But lighting by Jack Carpenter, with its use of intermittent pastel hues, helped create a dreamier landscape and softer environment that brought out the sweetness of the partnership of dancers Rosselyn Ramirez and Derek Sakakura. Pianist Roy Bogas, as well, enhanced the piece with his live rendition of the Copland score.

Dekkers, as well as being resident choreographer, is a great dancer whose lively solo in Balanchine’s Who Cares? displayed the confidence and strong technique I’d expected from this best known Diablo Ballet dancer. It was here, in the finale of Who Cares? that the evening’s best ensemble work took place, as well, with impressive, well-rehearsed synchronicity from the six dancers. Justin VanWeest tossed out a clean, impressive triple pirouette with panache and Tetyana Martyanova’s strong stage presence and technique in the culminating moments drew my eyes to her. (Both VanWeest and Martyanova are new to the company this year.) Live music (music director Greg Sudmeier on drums, Jonathan Erman on piano, Pat Klobas on bass) added a festive touch to an already celebratory evening, and was a great way to finish the show.

The night’s performance was brief – under ninety minutes – so the next part of the evening’s festivities, a nearby gala dinner, could take place. The buzz of excitement in the auditorium, post-performance, proved the party was continuing on for a well-deserving Jonas, her troupe of nine very talented dancers, and those who’ve administered and collaborated to make Diablo Ballet the success it continues to be. 

****1