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DIABLO BALLET.

DIABLO BALLET

DEAN LESHER CENTER FOR THE ARTS, WALNUT CREEK, CALIFORNIA SEPTEMBER 23-24, 1998

REVIEWED BY ANN MURPHY

Four years ago, in the affluent suburb of Walnut Creek, California, fifteen miles east of Oakland and up the freeway from Silicon Valley, a structural engineering software magnate named Ashraf Habibullah banded together with ballerina Lauren Jonas and, at his great personal expense, launched a chamber ballet company--a small resident ballet company with a live orchestra for the fast-growing dry grasslands region of Contra Costa County. Besides being the extraordinarily successful head of Computers and Structures, Inc., Habibullah has for some time been an amateur photographer of dance. Apparently the leap to dance company godfather followed effortlessly.

Founded in the shadow of Mt. Diablo, Diablo Ballet began as a shrill, often hysterical enterprise with great heart, where, on gala nights the mayor would preside, Habibullah would mischievously auction Rolls Royces, and a small bundle of dancers in bravura pieces would spew everything but soap bubbles. But after four years, the tone has dropped an octave and the company has outgrown the role of Valley Girl On Pointe.

That the troupe has been able to evolve is, in part, testament to the will of founder Jonas, who has personally matured from young-woman-in-search-of-a-spotlight to company director. The other half of the equation is Habibullah's financial generosity. When other high-tech millionaires in the Bay Area are building only private monuments to themselves, Habibullah has chosen to create a small public landmark that brings culture to the 'burbs.

For its season opener Diablo performed George Balanchine's 1928 Apollo as reconstructed by choreologist Marina Eglevsky for the first time, thanks to a grant from the Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation. It was a strained Apollo, with little of Balanchine's Platonic luminosity, and the Diablo Ballet Orchestra struggled with the rigors of Stravinsky's Apollon Musagete. But I found it a stirring spectacle all the same. One could see associate artistic director Nikolai Kabaniaev working to meet Balanchine, his short, often brittle body, with its shallow ballon and stiff upper back, acting as obstacles he constantly had to outwit to create the luscious, flexible god. By the end, as he performed the duet with the able Patricia Tomlinson as Terpsichore (whose breathless phrasing sadly had no inner life), Kabaniaev seemed to be in conversation with the master.

The workings of choreography are often more apparent in less-than-stellar performances, and when the choreography is as sere and elegant as Balanchine's it can be a joy to see the parts intimately. It's just such warmth and humanity that is Diablo's greatest virtue.

Its enduring weakness is its in-house choreography. Too often it feels churned out on schedule, tailored like a movie-of-the-week to capture an ephemeral public taste, and painfully hackneyed. Kabaniaev's E Medley, last on the program, with Latin percussionists Pete Escovedo, Juan Escovedo, and John Bendich onstage, was a long, aimless doodle to hot Latin beats. Sean Kelly's Striving for Unity was plodding and predictable.

But with structure and limitations their dances improve. Variations on Baroque, the newest work by Berkeley ballet teacher Sally Streets (mother of New York City Ballet dancer Kyra Nichols and lighting designer Alex Nichols), was based on the floor patterns and movement forms of baroque dance. With the assistance of historian Angene Feves, Streets built one of her loveliest and liveliest dances in years. Jacques Brel's torch songs formed the scaffolding for Kabaniaev's opener, Songs of Jacques Brel, and provided him with a similar set of limitations that focused and tightened the dance's movement.

After four years, one can still feel the troupe groping in the dark, trying to find a formula that works, the way Oakland Ballet found Diaghilev-era dances to build on. The results are as erratic as the stock market, but they provide a minicourse in the gestation of a performing arts group offered patronage, and it brings me back to Walnut Creek each time.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:MURPHY, ANN
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Dance Review
Date:Jan 1, 1999
Words:652
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