Monday, May 20, 2024

Diablo Ballet

Diablo Ballet
Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek
May 18th, 2024 (matinee)

This past weekend at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, Diablo Ballet concluded its historic thirtieth season. It’s been a minute since I’ve seen Diablo Ballet live and in person, and Saturday’s matinee was a lovely way to get reacquainted. The performance was delightful, a triple bill marrying a work from the 1980s, a 2016 composition and a world premiere. The company roster has changed quite a bit over the last few years and this current cohort is looking very strong indeed.

The program’s first half was all about tone and mood, beginning with the pas de deux from Gerald Arpino’s Light Rain, a striking work made for Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet in 1981. As one watches the duet, danced on Saturday afternoon by Lizzie Devanney and Luis Gonzalez, adjectives flood the mind. Sensual, hypnotizing, ferocious, intimate. Not surprisingly, it is absolutely packed with extreme movements, extensions and shapes. Ninety-degree flexion of the hands. Splits. Pencheé. A back lay out with accompanying kicks. Torso contractions. And of course, the final flying pose. In this partnered sequence, as well as other sections of the larger ballet, it has always struck me how long the female lead stays on pointe without a break. It’s astonishing and quite a feat. I so look forward to the day when the entire Light Rain is in Diablo’s repertoire. If their treatment of its pas de deux is any indication, it will be great!

4 in the Morning (An Entertainment) is Val Caniparoli choreography at its best. Created for Amy Seiwert’s Imagery back in 2016, the whimsical, multi-episodic romp charts a four-hour course of time (understandably sped up). Each short chapter opens with a digital clock reading high on the curtain’s corner, indicating where we find ourselves on the journey between midnight and four am. As the sections unfolded, it was anyone’s guess as to where the movement might reside. The scene might be stuffy and courtly. Phrase material could be mischievous and bold. Or cheeky, quick and unapologetic. My favorite was a humorous Celtic solo where a kilt costume piece transformed into a participant in the dance. The entire chamber ensemble (eight dancers) could be onstage, or it might be a duo, trio or quartet. 4 in the Morning was not only cleverly unpredictable, but totally entertaining (as the title aptly relays) and by far, the highlight of Saturday’s triple bill. 

Diablo Ballet in Caniparoli's 4 in the Morning (An Entertainment)
Photo Tue Nam Tom

The score, Façade by William Walton, was an ideal match because, like the capricious choreography, it too was full of surprises. At times, a sea shanty sang through the air; next , a British pub song in 6/8 time; then, undeniably, musical theater. But it was Susan Roemer’s costume design that really sealed the deal. The women were clad in slinky, ivory slip dresses while the men wore boxers, tank tops and socks, complete with old-fashioned sock garters. It felt very European in look, like we could have been watching Tanztheater Wuppertal, Nederlands Dans Theater or Cabaret. Funnily enough a production of Cabaret goes up at the Lesher Center in a week. With this nighttime attire and the timeframe of the piece, I wondered, were we watching a dream or reality?

If the first part of the program was all atmospheric feels, the second half was certainly all narrative. Enter choreographer Brian Enos’ new take on the mysterious Firebird. A one-act story, The Firebird has all the right elements. Royalty, a forest setting, mythical birds, an evil orchestrator, a benevolent matriarch and a love story. There’s fantasy, intrigue, forgiveness and super-hero, save-the-day moments. Props were symbolic and functional. Dramatically charged plot points were revealed. What more could one want from a narrative ballet? I’m not usually a fan of reading synopses or program notes, but here it was super smart to have a brief overview of a ‘not quite as well-known’ tale.

Enos’ choreography for the Firebird character (danced by Jackie McConnell) was terrific. Fast, sparkling, fluttering footwork – boureés, emboîté turns and much more. The finale unison sequence was also very well done with full out dancing from every member of the cast (all eighteen!). And partnering variations were solid, save some awkward transitions. One act narratives are tough – they just are. Trying to tell so much story in a short time is a challenge and then adding the real estate of a smaller stage presents another obstacle. But Enos and the Diablo Ballet artists faced those challenges head on. I think The Firebird is going to percolate well in the company’s rep over the next little while.   


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