Breaking Into New Territory: Diablo Ballet’s First Full-Length Work
By Catherine Pawlick
“Can you shift the girls more to the side, rather than lifting them? Yes, that’s nice.” Nikolai Kabaniaev, co-artistic director of Diablo Ballet is hard at work in a Walnut Creek ballet studio, creating his first full-length ballet, “Once Upon A Ballroom.” Aided by their strong partners, three women in slim legwarmers and leotards float briefly in the air, before touching ground and continuing the dance, a sweeping, dramatic interlude set to the waltz from Khatchaturian’s “Masquerade.”
“And after the temps de flêche, there’s a swivel in there,” he reminds the small group of seven polished dancers who precede six apprentices onstage. They go over the step once again, this time in perfect unison. “Good,” Nikolai says. Goal achieved.
Diablo Ballet, founded by Lauren Jonas in 1994 and located across the bay from San Francisco, has been cultivating its own niche in the Bay Area ballet world for more than a decade now. “It’s amazing that a smaller company like ours can produce a full-length ballet,” Kabaniaev explains during a rehearsal break. “My goal with this ballet is to expand our audience and give them entertainment that they will really enjoy.”
Last year the company’s “Magic Toy Store” performed to a sold-out house, a milestone for the small troupe. Based on audience demand, Diablo Ballet will perform it again this year, but Kabaniaev is determined to venture into newer territory.
“This ballet has something for everyone,” Nikolai comments. “’Once Upon A Ballroom’ is all about beauty: beautiful costumes, scenery, choreography, and dancing. At the end of the evening, I want the audience to say, ‘Wow, this is the most gorgeous thing I have ever seen.’ I want them to discover something that they didn’t know existed before, I want them to fall in love with ballet.”
In that, Kabaniaev’s piece succeeds. A peek at the nearly complete Act One shows a ballet based on a young woman’s fantasy of dancing at the ball. The clever introduction includes two men with retractable tape measures creating a ball gown for Dalila, danced by Tina Kay Bondstedt, Diablo’s longtime reigning ballerina who is known for her impossibly mesmerizing legs.
The modern soundtrack soon shifts into the overture to “La Traviata” before shifting back to the sounds and sights of a cocktail party, replete with clinking champagne glasses onstage. Subtle jealousies and drunken stupors appear briefly, sprinkling the plot with humor in what is otherwise the aura of a grand ballroom.
Kabaniaev, a Russian émigré who danced with the Kirov Ballet before leaving Russia, has a choreographic range that is greater –and far less classical-- than you’d expect. “Ballroom” shows a complex interplay of multi-layered steps, where sweeping lifts trade off with brief elements of jazz and even hip-hop. Kabaniaev has chosen selections from “Spartacus”, as well as music by Gluck, Wagner, Bellini, and even Maria Callas performing “Samson and Delilah” to further root the piece musically. Alongside other Russian choreographers such as Alexei Ratmansky, whose works were recently performed by the State Ballet of Georgia, and Yuri Possokhov, longtime resident choreographer at San Francisco Ballet, Kabaniaev’s talents also reach into that same sphere of international recognition. For the last 14 years Diablo’s unique repertoire has focused on innovative ballets.
Inside the hot Bay Area dance scene, where leading international ballet companies perform year-round, Diablo’s challenge is clear. “With shows like this I’d like to take Diablo Ballet to the next level,” the choreographer-director explains. “I’d like every performance to be an event that the audience will remember and come back to see again and again.”
Although the final touches to “Ballroom” will be made in the coming weeks, the proof of entertainment value is already visible in Diablo’s newest work. It will be one Bay Area performance not to miss.
Dean Lesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek