By Diane Claytor
I am not a dancer. Before I started volunteering with Diablo Ballet, I could count on one hand the number of times I’d seen a professional dance performance (and probably most of those were holiday performances of The Nutcracker). So, as I sat at the Inside the Dancers’ Studio performance watching Diablo Ballet’s wonderful May show, I started thinking about the whole process: why this particular dance? Who decides? How long do these incredible dancers rehearse for such a performance?
To get the answers, I asked Lauren Jonas, Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Diablo Ballet, to meet me for a cup of coffee and conversation. On a beautiful, sunny Monday morning, Lauren and I sat outside a popular coffee house and she filled me in on creating and developing Diablo Ballet’s performances, from beginning to end.
Lauren is, of course, the perfect person to give this information. Nineteen years ago, she co-founded Diablo Ballet after realizing that while there was professional theater, opera and symphony in Walnut Creek, there was no professional dance company. Still going strong, plans are underway for the company’s 20th anniversary celebration next year.
In May, which is when Diablo Ballet’s season is over, Lauren, in her role of Artistic Director, is hard at work figuring out and confirming the next year’s programs. Currently, each season consists of: November 2013 at the Smith Center and the Lesher Center, March 2014 at the Lesher Center, where capacity seating is close to 800; Inside the Dancers’ Studio, with performances in January/February, April and May 2014, are performed in an auditorium, where capacity seating is approximately 250. Lauren takes these numbers into consideration when creating the programs. She also tries to always present programs that include both classical and contemporary elements.
The Lesher programs are typically longer and the repertoire more complex. “It’s a fine balance for me to plan repertoires that challenge the dancers and excite the audience,” Lauren said. “And at the same time, I want to keep Diablo Ballet unique and have performances with that added sparkle. That’s always part of my thinking.”
She went on to explain. “I consider each of the dancers and plan the repertoire around them. Since Diablo Ballet is such a small company (9 dancers), everyone is featured in every performance. I try to capitalize on their strengths. I also want to challenge and inspire them, which, in turn, inspires the audience. “
The size of the company plays a significant role when developing a program, Lauren said. She has to plan ballets where the dancers are not in dances one right after the next. “Sometimes that’s not possible and we just have a longer pause between ballets,” she stated. “I have to look for repertoire that utilizes a small company of dancers. There are ballets I would love to see Diablo Ballet perform but there are 20-plus dancers in them so I know that simply won’t work for us.”
Lauren spent many years as a ballet dancer herself (in fact, she stopped performing just five years ago). She performed with the Milwaukee Ballet, Oakland Ballet and Southwest Ballet and toured the US with the Moscow Ballet. “I always try to put myself on both sides of the aisle,” Lauren continued. “That’s the positive of me having been a dancer; I know what inspires and excites dancers. And then as an audience member, I know what inspires and excites me when I watch a ballet performance. It’s important to satisfy the audience and inspire the dancers as individuals – technically, emotionally and artistically.”
Diablo Ballet is fortunate in that they have their own music director, Greg Sudmeier, and every program Lauren creates includes at least two ballets that are performed to live music, which definitely enhances a program. “It’s wonderful to have a music director. It’s a beautiful collaboration. Greg has really great insight into music and what’s doable,” Lauren said. “For instance, I knew I wanted something a little different, something fun for [company member] David Fonnegra to choreograph last March. Greg suggested Latin jazz music. He gave David a variety of choices and David and I chose the selections we thought would be best.”
Lauren believes she has been successful in planning exciting programs every season, while keeping within her budget. “It’s challenging. There are works by famous choreographers that I would absolutely love to present, but our budget just doesn’t allow it. It’s a fine balance – what I want to do and what I can do.”
Diablo Ballet often performs ballets choreographed by the very prolific George Balanchine, the man U.S. News & World Report once referred to as “the greatest choreographer of our time.” Lauren said that Diablo Ballet is one of the few smaller companies allowed to perform Balanchine ballets and the “Balanchine Estate has been very generous with us.
Having performed as a dancer herself for so many years, Lauren and Diablo Ballet’s staff have numerous contacts in the ballet world, many of whom are happy to support her and Diablo Ballet. Trey McIntyre, called one of the world’s most innovative choreographers by Ballet News, brought the west coast premiere of The Blue Boy to Diablo Ballet in March.
Typically, once the particular works are decided upon, the dancers to perform those works are selected. “If we’re presenting a new work by a new choreographer,” Lauren said, “sometimes he or she will watch the dancers in rehearsal or class. Then the choreographer and I will decide together which dancers will perform.” One of the ballets planned for next year is a Pas de Deux from Billy the Kid; the woman who is in charge of choreographer Eugene Loring’s Estate and responsible for the staging of his ballets, will work with Lauren in choosing the dancers for this famous duet.
Lauren is very supportive of her dancers and encourages them to grow. “Part of my mission is to nurture the dancers, encourage their artistry and creativity, increase their self confidence. It’s wonderful to see individuals express themselves and be at the forefront of what the future may offer them.” Company members Robert Dekkers and David Fonnegra have choreographed for their colleagues.
“I want audience members to feel excited and inspired when they leave the theatre. I believe that’s what the performing arts are. We want to touch peoples’ lives and have them feel transformed in some way.”
When a Diablo Ballet company member choreographs, Lauren gives her/him as much space as possible. For the first few weeks of rehearsal, she stays away. “When we have a little more than a week left before the performance, I’m in the studio, watching the ballet, taking notes and making suggestions,” she stated.
When purchasing the rights to produce a work previously done, it must be performed exactly as originally choreographed – and costumed as originally designed. Lauren noted that it’s “similar to playing Mozart – the music is performed as originally written. There may be a small change in tempo, but you need to present the work as intended.” The choreographer or his/her estate will assign a choreologist, an individual who teaches and sets the ballet.
When the choreologist or repetiteur is staging the ballet, Lauren sits with him/her, watching and learning the dances, watching the dancers and taking copious notes. Once the choreologist leaves, Lauren works with the company, rehearsing the dance and serving as the Ballet Mistress. She commented that “Because I’m not a choreographer, I feel as if I’m more objective in being able to help set and rehearse the ballet.”
Since the costuming of a ballet must be identical to the original production, often times costumes can be rented from other companies. However, when that is not possible, Diablo Ballet uses the services of a costume builder/designer who can duplicate a costume by just looking at pictures. There is also a wardrobe mistress at each performance, managing adjustments and alterations.
Lauren strongly believes in her team. “These are good people. They are team players, they are sincere and they genuinely like each other. It’s all about the team,” she said.
And how does Lauren feel at the end of each show? “Relief, pride, exhaustion,” she said. “I feel very lucky to be doing what I love. Every day is different. I never know what’s ahead of me when I wake up in the morning.”
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Diane Claytor, a Chicago native, has spent most of her adult life living in the East Bay and working for several different non-profit organizations. Although admittedly not a dance aficionado, she enjoys all types of music and is probably happiest when she’s plugged into her mp3 player listening to whatever the mood dictates. She’s a staunch believer in arts education and is extremely impressed with Diablo Ballet’s PEEK program, ensuring that children of all economic levels have the opportunity to experience the power of dance.