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Diablo Ballet

Magical Mixed Bill in Berkeley

'Tarantella Pas de Deux,' 'The Petites,' and 'The Magic Toy Store'

by Catherine Pawlick

January 17, 2004 -- Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, California

One of the mixed blessings for balletomanes in the San Francisco Bay Area is the plethora of high caliber dance troupes all competing for stage space in theatres around the bay. From San Francisco and Oakland Ballet, to Lines, ODC, and others, the list is seemingly endless. But on Saturday night, Diablo Ballet proved that some of the Bay Area’s best dancing can only be found by crossing the Bay Bridge. Diablo Ballet has versatile, expertly trained dancers of the same (if not higher) caliber, who demonstrated their technical expertise and dramatic abilities in a mixed program of three works.

The evening's opening piece, Balanchine's "Tarantella Pas de Deux" was the short and sweet appetizer before the main course. Delivered with lightning speed to snappy music by Gottschalk, this is a rarely-performed ballet with airs of Bournonville in its choreography. Diablo's artistic staff had the good sense to revive the pas de deux and rehearse it to a level of near perfection.

The couple entered the stage – tambourine in hand and ribbons flowing – and offered nonstop delivery of enthusiastic petit allegro. Lauren Main, a graduate of the University of Utah's Fine Arts Department and new to the company this season, appeared with Edward Stegge for the light-hearted pas de deux. With a lean, athletic body, Main puts power into everything she does. Her limbs were certain and accurate, conveying a confidence necessary for the piece. A hint of more relaxed shoulders would have added a small touch of femininity to the piece to balance it out. Stegge, an endless ball of energy, was quick and equally strong. The pas was over almost before it begun, but an excellent choice as an audience warmer.

The second work, KT Nelson's "The Petites," was a touchingly lovely triptych to music by Arvo Part, John Cage, and others. Part of Diablo's repertoire for over two years now, "The Petites" is a modern ballet that even hard-core "ballet only" types will find enjoyable. Void of an intentional plot, the three sections vary in emotion and intensity, but those seeking a storyline in each may just find one.

The first section presents the exquisitely sleek bodies of Tina Kay Bohnstedt and Nikolai Kabaniaev, clothed in minimalist leotards with bare legs, prowling the stage, limbs interlocked, in a series of action-reaction movements. The music for this section at times seems simply abstract, and at others portrays a sense of melancholy, despair, loss or longing, but the choreography doesn't always mimic those emotions. This juxtaposition of abstract movement with emotional sounds then shifts -- and suddenly a glimpse of two lovers appears for an instant. The play between the dancers' movements and the music provides ample room for thought, and plenty of visual entertainment. Bohnstedt's legs are a sculptor's dream, and Kabaniaev complements her both physically and with excellently timed partnering.

The second section presented Lauren Jonas and Lauren Main, also en pointe, dancing in two separate worlds that finally seem to merge at the end. The choreography here looks as if someone dented the ballet – classical lines with a sudden bent elbow, wave of the hand, or circle drawn in the air. It is as if two girls are dancing, so engaged in themselves so as not to notice the other. But at last they walk and dance in synchronicity. The possible interpretations are many, but the choreography remains clever.

The third section, danced to somber, almost holy violin music, presented Erika Johnson in an effective pas de deux with Jeykns Pelaez. She begins with bourrees en pointe, her arms stretched out in front of her, reaching. His arms, similarly held, lock her, and she bounces between his arms, as if in a cage. The couple do not look at each other, but what makes the piece engaging is the sense of romance – or at least, connection – between the two dancers. The section closes with them both on the floor, bathed in light.

The main course of the evening was "The Magic Toy Store" which Co-Artistic Director Nikolai Kabaniaev had recreated after the Ballet Russes' original production by Leonid Massine. Based on the "real" toys who are visited by first a young boy, and then a young, temper-tantrum prone girl, the story develops further when the ballerina doll is "purchased" and will be taken away from her lover, the Toy Soldier.

In one word: delightful. "The Magic Toy Store" shows the best of Diablo's talents. Thanks to the heritage that the Kabaniaev duo bring to the company, they've revived an old, classical Russian work which few American companies can do and fewer still can do well. The dancers' versatility – there is ample acting and mime involved in this ballet – is on display for all to see, and their technical capacity is also exhibited in the hour-long piece.

A number of guest artists were sprinkled into the mix. Charles Torres (formerly of Smuin Ballets) provided charming comic relief as both a father and a mother, trading off roles with Lauren Jonas. Artur Sultanov (formerly of the Kirov Ballet and now with Oregon Ballet Theatre) was effective as a tall, tipsy waiter doll. One hopes that their guest appearances with the company will continue.

It is with a combination of disappointment and pleasure that balletgoers experienced one of the Bay Area's best dance troupes on Saturday night in Berkeley. The pleasure of course, inherent in the company’s performance itself – professional and artistic -- was dimmed only by their limited one night run, and the regret that they don't have a more regular or prominent place in the city of San Francisco.

Edited by Jeff.

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