Diablo Ballet has discovered the elusive formula for building successful repertoire: accessibility plus creativity. Increasing the viewership of professional dance is of utmost importance right now. The financial survival of dance companies depends on it. Even when the economy is good, arts organizations struggle to stay afloat, so when economic times are hard, dance faces even more significant peril. The front line in this battle is the audience, which leads to a difficult debate on accessibility. Presenting popular works may seem like a win-win for everyone involved. The audience likes what they’re seeing, they buy more tickets, the company can pay its bills, the dancers get their salaries and the next season becomes possible. Yet, there is a strong opposition who fear that by catering to spectator interest, choreography and repertory will suffer. Diablo Ballet has shown that this need not be the case with dance that is creative and challenging while remaining accessible.
The Diablo Ballet’s weekend performances at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek provided something for everyone. The program began with KT Nelson’s The Escaping Game, which celebrated all aspects of youthful energy; from the exciting fun to the alluring flirtation to the vulnerable nervousness. The movement really conjured Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe for me, but The Escaping Game was much better. There was a clearer fusion of ballet and modern esthetics than in Tharp’s piece, because Nelson seamlessly built the movement as one continuous stream of consciousness rather than a chunky juxtaposition of the two. And, there were particular moments that exploded off the stage. The first was the men’s diagonal sequence at the end of the 2nd section. They moved from upstage left to downstage right in absolute, exhilarating flight. The second was the accelerando sequence at the end of the piece where the speed of the lifts and dips increased along with the music until they were of true abandon. This piece was funky and cool, but still incredibly thought provoking. It showcased the images of youth which were fascinating on their own, but also reflected what we give up when we choose to leave our youth behind.
For those viewers who prefer the more story-telling side of dance, the Diablo Ballet also presented Julia Adam’s new work, The Little Prince. It had all the aspects of narrative ballet with a cast of interesting characters and a story of their interactions. The stand-out moments were the animals: the sheep, the fox and particularly Mayo Sugano’s snake. Adam clearly did her research on how each of these animals move and created choreography for the dancers that was incredibly accurate and visually engaging. Every narrative ballet has some version of the grand pas de deux, which often manifests itself as the relationship between two of the main characters. The dance between Edward Stegge as the Prince and Erika Johnson as the Rose was as grand pas de deux as you can get. It really was the connection between those two characters expressed through connective movement.
This evening featured two very different types of pieces in one engaging program. Diablo Ballet’s decision to pair two contrasting works on the same program was a smart idea. They had two contemporary works, but with very different form and content: one conceptual, one narrative. This speaks to a larger audience because there is really something for everyone. And, it also allows those who gravitate towards one type of dance to be exposed to another. Maybe they will find themselves pulled to an unfamiliar form of dance that they little experience with. Accessibility plus creativity opens doors for the audience and in return for the company.