The holiday season has officially begun… and this weekend (Saturday, Nov. 9), Diablo Ballet will kick off its exciting 20th anniversary season at Ohlone College’s Smith Center in Fremont, featuring A Swingin’ Holiday, 2013 edition. Next weekend, Nov. 15 and 16, will find the same repertoire — A Swingin’ Holiday, Our Waltzes Trilogy and Compulsive — performed at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Performing Arts.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a rehearsal of A Swingin’ Holiday. I had the chance to watch choreographer Sean Kelly in action, and then spend a few minutes talking with him. I was able to see the Diablo Ballet dancers rehearse, stretch, dance and even relax a little. And the hour or so that I spent there gave me a better understanding of – and a whole new appreciation for – the work that goes into a ballet production.
I arrived at the rehearsal studio at the end of what I’m sure was a long day for the dancers. The studio was very warm; one side of the room was covered in dance bags, backpacks, and clothing. There was a table littered with water bottles, bags of fruits and vegetables, energy bars. I noticed that dancers, when not actually rehearsing, rarely just sat around. They stretched, they practiced moves on their own, they rehearsed flips and steps with a partner, they intently listened to directions and watched their colleagues that were rehearsing a specific number.
Kelly sat in front of the dancers along with Diablo Ballet’s Artistic Director Lauren Jonas. He called out descriptions: “you’re in a jazz club,” “she’s delicious, treat her like a Fifth Avenue lady;” he gave out instructions: “needs more energy,” “needs to be bubbly, more playful, sense of abandonment” “pick your feet up higher;” he called out compliments: “really good,” “looks like you’re making a statement,” “great kick.” He got up to demonstrate a move, a facial expression, a step.
This is the second year that Diablo Ballet is featuring A Swingin’ Holiday in its November show but this season, it’s the 2013 Edition. Last year, the San Francisco Chronicle called the world premiere a “classy verve… that stands out from other pop yuletide confections… the company has a hit on its hands.” The California Literary Review said, “The dancing in A Swingin’ Holiday was fresh and spirited, while adhering to the rigors of perfect timing.” And dancereviewtimes.com wrote about musical director Greg Sudmeier and the live music performed: “Ten popular holiday songs… were imaginatively orchestrated and the musicians were swinging in top form.”
The 2013 A Swingin’ Holiday will be a little different; Kelly has added two new dances including an entrance pas de deux. He’s fine-tuned some of the choreography, spicing up some parts, cleaning up some and simplifying some. “Nothing radical,” he told me. Additionally, there are two new dancers this year, affording Kelly the opportunity to tweak some of the character development. Both are partnered with dancers that performed last year, but the new personalities and styles still created differences.
Born and raised in San Rafael, Kelly trained at Marin Ballet. He went to New York, danced with American Ballet Theater’s second company and then joined the Houston Ballet, where he spent the next 15 years. While there, Kelly said, he worked his way up the ranks, dancing as a principal, then serving as ballet master and choreographer.
In 2001 Kelly decided to put aside the world of ballet and entered the world of musical theater. In
an interview he gave dancetabs.com last year, Kelly said about that time, “I found that I was more and more interested in doing musical theater. As a classical dancer, it was a big step to actually give myself permission to entertain the idea of doing musical theater, but I thought, ‘I have this technique, and so I don’t have that to worry about it. I can finally relax in a dance style that, yes, requires good technique, but is so relaxed, and carries with it a different challenge from the expectation of ballet.’ It was a catalytic moment and I realized, ‘Now’s the time!’”
This decision took him back to New York where he joined the touring cast of the Tony-nominated musical Swing, serving as both a swing dancer and dance captain. He then joined the touring company of Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out, which featured Billy Joel music. Again, Kelly served as both dancer and dance captain in this Tony-nominated show.
His most recent Broadway show was the touring company of Billy Elliot, where, as resident choreographer, he coached the young boys. “It was quite an undertaking – very intense,” Kelly said. The boys are aged 11-14 and working with them, and then seeing them perform “gave me a taste of what it must feel like to be a parent and feel that pride,” he stated.
Kelly is also associate director for Bad Boys of Dance, a company of dancers that travel throughout the world, performing more than 200 shows a year.
At the invitation of Jonas, Kelly has, over the years, periodically joined Diablo Ballet to dance and occasionally choreograph. Last year, Jonas approached Kelly, stating she thought it would be fun to create a piece combining holiday music classics played in big band fashion and pairing it with swing-style dancing.
Musical Director Sudmeier suggested some holiday songs and Kelly went through them, selecting those he liked and for which he felt he could create dances. He then crafted a “story” and the characters in it. “I tell the dancers ‘you’re in a club, or a holiday party and everyone’s in a really good mood, high energy, happy,” he explains. “When the dancers get on the floor, I want them to have that spirit.” For each pas de deux, he describes to the couple the image he wants them to present. “You’re the elegant couple. You’ve just arrived, have hundred dollar bills in your pocket and she looks like a million bucks. You’re that guy, that gal, you’ve got it going on,” he says. And that’s exactly what I heard him say to two of the dancers as they got up to rehearse their piece.
When Kelly first began developing A Swingin Holiday last year, he said he would sit for hours, notepad in hand, listening to the music. “I’d start to visualize, come up with an idea,” he explained. “What if she’s had a little too much to drink and sees a guy at a party and wants to dance with him; what if she’s a little off balance from the alcohol; what if she’s standing on a table while being tipsy.” He’d listen to the music over and over, creating the movements and specific steps. Last hear, he said, he was very thorough, writing everything down.
This year, with the changes and tweaking, he’d get a visual while playing the music in his head. “I’d come into the studio with a rough draft and the specifics came as I worked with the dancers.”
Kelly knows many choreographers can just listen to the music and spontaneously come up with movements. “When I’m working, especially on longer pieces,” he said, “I have to write the steps down. Otherwise I get into the studio, the dancers are looking at me, waiting for direction and I feel paralyzed.” Even if it’s the simplest idea – the female is sitting in a chair, wearing a gold sweater – “it gives me a starting point, something from which to build.”
Kelly is open to having the dancers provide input. “Particularly with a company like Diablo Ballet,” he said, “because they’re more experienced. Using their intellect along with my ideas can be very helpful.”
In the rehearsal I watched, it appeared that Kelly served as both choreographer and ballet master – the person that typically teaches the class, oversees rehearsals, decides what sections will be rehearsed, gives notes to the dancers and tightens up the performances. “Because I’ve been coached for so long, I try to do a little of both. As the choreographer, here’s my idea and as master, you’re bending your knees too much. If I can clean it up as I go, I can see everything more clearly.”
Jonas also serves as ballet mistress and, in fact, the closer A Swingin’ Holiday gets to opening night, she’ll be wearing that hat more and more prominently. After two weeks of working with the company, Kelly left the Bay Area because of previous commitments. So it’s Jonas working with the dances now.
As Kelly stated in last year’s dancetabs.com interview, the Diablo Ballet dancers are well trained “and what I’ve definitely appreciated is that they’re open to the experience… They are very excited to learn, allowing me to be more vulnerable. That’s made it fun!”
You can see Kelly’s imaginative choreography, the incredible Diablo Ballet dancers and hear Greg Sudmeier’s big band sound at the kick off of the 20th anniversary season. For ticket information, visit https://diabloballet.org/tickets/.
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