Legend of Taj Mahal, Diablo Ballet, Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, California, May 19, 2007
As it adds new dancers to its roster, Diablo Ballet has become a stronger, more purposeful company capable of a broader range of work. The decision to reprise Nikolai Kabaniev’s “Legend of Taj Mahal” would seem to fly in the face of this changing context. On the one hand, the dancers appear overtaxed by the demands of steps that rush to arrive nowhere in particular in a plot that really begs for more subtlety and deeper affect than the choreography admits. It opens with a projection of the Taj Mahal veiled by a translucent curtain. The story’s protagonist, Old Shah Jahan, danced by Matthew Linzer, arises out of the sand—a fantastic opening that promises more than it delivers as the story unfolds. The story revolves around the Shah’s dream that the Angel of Death has returned his wife to him and he recollects their first meeting and lovemaking. The younger Shah is danced by Jekyns Pelaez, the Angel of Death by David Fonnegra, and Princess Mumtaz by Tina Kay Bohnstedt. Of the principals, Bohnstedt, hampered by too many veils that overlay a bra and briefs, delivers the best performance possible. She is sultry, sinewy and strong, in between being spirited back and forth across the stage while curtains open and close distractingly for no particular reason behind her in an ornate set that is stunning but overbuilt in relation to the weight of the work as a whole and seems outlandishly large for the size of the stage. The music, a hash of Peter Gabriel, Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass pieces, is not ballet-inclined, and Fonnegra must dance the Angel of Death in a diaphanous black costume to what sounds to my admittedly untutored ear like House music, more the kind of thing you’d expect from an Angel of Death in San Francisco’s Tenderloin than a stone’s throw from the Casbah. The best sequences were danced by the Friends of the Princess, Mayo Sugano and Lauren Main de Lucia, whose costumes—Sugano in violet and Main de Lucia in green—were belly-dance sexy and flattered their line. Sugano’s strong but joyful attack really held your eye.
Also on the program, though not featured in the advertising, were two excellent works by female choreographers, Tina Kay Bohnstedt and KT Nelson.
“The Mirror,” represents Bohnstedt’s first time out as a choreographer and it is a triumph. Lauren Main de Lucia is shown facing a mirror as she stands on a platform studying her image. As she sits on a chair and extends her limbs and torso outward from it, the platform recedes and moves from the mirror tumbling into the larger world, almost as if the mirror cradled her gestation and then she was born. Matthew Linzer emerges from behind the mirror wearing a kilt and top in the same woodsy green and brown as Main de Lucia’s costume. At various times in their pas de deux, they seem to be growing out of a shared rootedness, dancing low to the floor, finding their gravity as they pump each other’s body parts, working through affinities and challenges that correspond to the arpeggios and dissonant chords in the Erik Satie piano score. The lighting in a set by Christopher Griffin is low key in keeping with the feral mood. Linzer, a very tall dancer, shows extraordinary sensibility and specificity in his partnering and makes a great addition to the company.
Inspired by the haunting vocal music of Bjork, K.D. Nelson’s “It’s Not What You Think” surveys our culture in what on the surface appears to be a contemporary romp. Mod Squad-costumed dancers run onto the stage from every direction, including from the audience in sherbet-colored togs. Bjork’s simple but oddly accented incantation,“All that she said was true, all that she meant was good…give her some time, give her some space,” with the Gs in “give” pronounced softly to make them “jiv,” is the motor for this work of pursuit and resistance, with dancers walking and perching on each other’s backs one moment, and moving through space in moods of meditation the next. It’s a modern day operetta in which Peter Brandenhoff brings a special talent for character work rarely seen in contemporary dance, and Mayo Sugano and Edward Stegge dance a sculptural pas de deux that is heart-rending.
Diablo Ballet announced that it is $500,000 in the hole going into next season. So far, $100,000 has been raised. The evening ended with a DVD presentation of the company’s outreach to the schools, in which Sugano, who has taught children for many years here in San Francisco at City Ballet and also at Aoyama Ballet in Tokyo, leads East Bay children through steps, movement and improvisation. The company has had a commitment to outreach long before it became a requirement for receiving certain grants and matching funds. Unfortunately, the time segment that followed the DVD was used for a Q&A, with many questions from audience members and few answers of substance from exhausted dancers. Given the company’s grave financial situation, I was hoping for a fund-raising campaign presentation, which I believe most of the audience who stayed was also expecting, to receive some direction on how to contribute to keep Diablo Ballet dancing. With so many talented dancers, it would be a shame to let any fundraising opportunity fall through the cracks.