It’s not often that this hard-bitten critic is reduced to deciphering tear-stained notes, but such was the case after Saturday afternoon’s performance by Diablo Ballet at the intimate and congenial Shadelands Arts Center in Walnut Creek. The waterworks were prompted by two of the five short dances on offer, which featured the live performance of two of the most ravishing pieces ever written for cello and piano.

Tetyana Martyanova and Justin Vanweest in Stevenson's End of Time © Tiffany Bertolami-Fong and Michael Malerba
Tetyana Martyanova and Justin Vanweest in Stevenson's End of Time
© Tiffany Bertolami-Fong and Michael Malerba

Mendelssohn’s Song without Words, Op. 109 was the composer’s last work for cello and piano, dedicated to the acclaimed 18-year-old French cellist Lisa Cristiani, one of very few female cellists of the time, whose youthful beauty and virtuosity captivated Mendelssohn when he heard her play at a concert in Leipzig in 1845. Tragically, only a few years later, at the age of 26, Cristiani was to die of cholera.

Diablo Ballet dancer David Fonnegra’s moody duet for himself and Tetyana Martyanova, titled Resistance, evokes a relationship doomed never to prosper – perhaps one imagined by Mendelssohn between himself and Cristiani. In a striking black dress with long flowing panels, the beautiful Martyanova frequently withdraws from Fonnegra, distracted by some distant muse. Fonnegra is protective of her but struggles with his own demons. The vocabulary is lyrical without descending into cliché, and makes the most of Martyanova’s unusually long, eloquent torso and legs. The atmospheric lighting, by Jack Carpenter, is just right – proving that even in a barebones space like Shadelands, with the audience just a few feet from the dancers and musicians, you can transport them to the 19th century.

The admirable Roy Bogas on piano and Mason Dille on cello also delivered the passionate slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, written in 1901, soon after the 28-year-old composer received the shattering news that his childhood sweetheart, Vera Skalon, had married someone else. Their teenage romance had been nipped in the bud some years prior by Vera’s mother, who did not think a young musician, no matter how gifted, was a suitable match for a general’s daughter.

To this elegiac adagio, the redoubtable Ben Stevenson created End of Time, one of the finer examples of that vast category of pas de deux known as sad unitard ballets. The name, according to Stevenson, “depicts my feeling that after some global devastation 
only two people remain on earth.” Virtually naked in figure-hugging Lycra of mottled blue and silver ash, suggestive of the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, the bewitching Rosselyn Ramirez and dashing Derek Sakakura comfort each other, showing off her poetic lines and his youthful ardor. The partnering technique is difficult, with sweeping lifts, drags along the floor, off-centre balances and a daring set of piqués into a falling arabesque from which Sakakura must catch Ramirez at the very last moment before she hits the floor. Ramirez uses her pointes strikingly, particularly in a sequence in which he drags her backward, her heel digging into the floor, then braces her while she poignantly wraps a sickled foot around the other ankle extended on pointe.

Exhausted by all this partnering, Sakakura takes a well-deserved nap on the floor, while Ramirez leans gently against him, reaching her arms to the sky then floating them slowly downward. A triple-hankie moment.

Cheeriness was restored in the frivolous pas de deux from Esmeralda, an inexorably Russian classic from 1844, ripped from Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, which is rarely performed in its entirety except by the Russians. The bravura-filled pas de deux is much bashed about in competition, however, in a Soviet-era restaging by Vladimir Bourmeister, and while it seems foolhardy to attempt all that leaping and spinning and tambourine-kicking in such a tight space as Shadelands, the daring Mayo Sugano and Robert Dekkers were more than up to the task. In her flashy, sparkling tutu with mesh sleeves, Sugano hit the right balance of gypsy fire and the innocence of a young girl in love for the first time, while Dekkers supported her ably through some fiendish one-handed promenades and whirling lifts. The rest of the company raced on for the classic, joyfully symmetric finale, crowned by a series of smoking brisés volés by Edward Stegge.

Dekkers earlier showed his flair for more hard-edged contemporary work in Mário Radačovský’s Compulsive, a solo set to a twisted, pulsating anthem by Yann Tiersen, whose lyrics seemed strangely at odds with the choreography. “It's hard, hard to stand up for what's right/ and bring home the bacon each night/ Hard not to break down and cry/ when every idea that you’ve tried has been wrong/ but you must carry on,” growls the singer, in a sort of Tom Waits-Bruce Springsteen fusion, to the accompaniment of an accordion, while Dekkers, in jacket and trousers, eyes unsettlingly blank, alternately throws a modern dance tantrum then bursts into a fit of balletic euphoria.

His rapid mood swings, virtuosic in their execution, culminate in the hurling of a chair toward the audience. My notes read: “Seek counseling.”

Collectively, the dances in this program showcase the tremendous versatility and style of this tiny, nine-dancer company but none more intriguingly than Dekkers’ AnOther, an ensemble piece which opened the program. His movement invention, balletic in impetus but au courant in effect, transforms the ungainly into the sublime, in the way he links movement together, and in his musicality. Crouching, crawling, slithering, lurching, and tumbling have rarely looked this poetic. The women in attractive dresses and the men in button-down shirts, suspenders and ties, inhabit their own private hells from which they escape periodically for brief, tender encounters. The lanky Justin Vanweest is particularly fine in a spiraling solo and in his brief grappling with Rosselyn Ramirez and Jennifer Friel Dille. Derek Sakakura and Mayo Sugano are riveting in an extended duet in which they make shelters for each other with curves in their bodies. He taps her spine, then her rib cage, and her body responds like the leaves of a silk tree that fold upon the lightest touch.

AnOther leaves a fainter impression than it should, weakened by a lightweight score by Yann Tiersen. Famous principally for the soundtrack to the film Amélie, Tiersen is also an innovative rocker and avant-garde composer. You would not know this, however, from this music, which might put you in the mood to sit at a café on the Left Bank, watching the rain, smoking a Gauloise, drinking coffee, and contemplating your latest failed novel, but which can’t match the poetry of Mayo Sugano’s back bend, or the gorgeous reverse fish dives in which Dekkers wraps the women around the men’s backs.