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Improving by Leaps and Bounds 

Diablo Ballet is the best suburban troupe in the state, as its new season will attest

Wednesday, Aug 23 2000
Last Thursday, a little Walnut Creek dance company known as Diablo Ballet traipsed down south to appear in Los Angeles' first-ever ballet festival, Ballet Fest 2000. Diablo was the only Northern California company to share the festival's three programs with Southern California's usual suburban-based suspects: Santa Barbara's State Street Ballet, Orange County's Francisco Martinez Dancetheater, Riverside's Inland Pacific Ballet, and a handful of others. Though the performance had yet to take place as of this writing, based on the reputations of each company Diablo may well be sending those other troupes back to suburbia with their tutus between their legs. Diablo's dominance says a great deal about L.A.'s long-parched dance scene, to be certain, but it says even more about Diablo and the great leaps forward it has taken over the last three years. Bay Area critics have raved about Diablo's progress for years, but few San Franciscans have trekked to the East Bay to see for themselves. This fall, after seven years of preparation, Diablo will open its 2000-01 season cityside, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Sept. 15 and 16. You can get a sneak peek this Sunday at "The Best of Diablo Ballet," a free program at the Chronicle Pavilion.

With luck, the Yerba Buena program, which includes Diablo's signature interpretation of George Balanchine's Apollo and the West Coast premiere of Trey McIntyre's flashy Dave Brubeck tribute Touched, will lure city folk through the Caldecott Tunnel later this year for a Diablo season that promises never to plateau. The troupe's East Bay dates offer six company premieres: new works by ODC's K.T. Nelson, by San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Christopher Stowell, and by Berkeley native Val Caniparoli, and the addition of yet another Balanchine work (the company now has 10), the sassy Gershwin romp Who Cares? They're the kind of projects that set Diablo apart from other suburban companies, but they are clearly the effects, not the cause, of Diablo's success. When you see a Diablo program, you get an inescapable feeling that someone with good taste and good sense is behind the wheel.

Lauren Jonas looks like a prototypical ballet dancer. She is petite, her hair and face are almost always impeccably done up, and she speaks in high, constricted tones. She is shy: While watching a videotape of past Diablo performances, she fast-forwards, red-faced, through her own solos. She began her performing career straight out of high school, joining first the Milwaukee then the Oakland and Southwest ballets.

Seven years ago she and Diablo co-founder Ashraf Habibullah, who owns a software company and dabbles extensively in dance photography, created a blueprint for regional ballet success.

"Ashraf's company had a staff of 15 high-quality engineers who do everything, including PR, answering the phones, everything," Jonas says. "I thought, "That's an amazing concept. I'll hire dancers who have been with major companies around the world and offer them more opportunities than just performing.' Here the dancers work on outreach programs, they teach company class, they choreograph, one of the dancers runs the arts education program. The dancers feel an ownership, and when an outside choreographer comes, there's an integrity to how the dancers work with them." (It seems Jonas' plan anticipated many dancers' current desires: Witness principal dancer Bruce Sansom's recent departure from London's Royal Ballet to train in an administrative program here at San Francisco Ballet.)

Today Jonas' company has 11 dancers who all enjoy 35-week contracts (relatively cushy in the dance world) and full health benefits. Jonas hopes that in three to five years she might swell their ranks to all of 12 or 13. "From the start, I've wanted to keep it small because I wanted the audience to become family with the dancers and to feel intimate with them," she says. "And I wanted the dancers themselves to feel special. I wanted to take a smaller group of people and really take care of them."

She did at least three other smart things. She kept the classic tutu, razzle-dazzle pas de deux in the repertoire but kept them to a shrewd minimum. She eschewed the full-length story ballets that can mean big box office but also, for small companies, logistical and artistic nightmares. And she took risks with East Bay audiences, even going so far as to allow a solo in one recent premiere to be performed in nothing but a G-string dance belt. "I was worried about that," she says. "But, you know, it's art!"

The distance from a sound strategy to an inspired performance, as Diablo has proven, isn't long. "When I started this company, I just wanted to do it right," Jonas says. Her dancers aren't the only ballet lovers who are grateful.

About The Author

Rachel Howard


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