Diablo Ballet Presents Once Upon A Time


Choreographed by the notable Julia Adam as a family ballet, Once Upon A Time premiered on March 22, 2019 as part of Diablo Ballet's 25th Anniversary season. Fortunately for fans, filmmaker James Yamazaki filmed a live performance onstage for virtual showing to audiences this month.

Jackie McConnell and Michael Wells in Julia Adam’s Once Upon a Time.
Jackie McConnell and Michael Wells in Julia Adam’s Once Upon a Time.

The first of two acts is in black and white, like a noir movie, but set to the score of George Gershwin's upbeat and playful An American in Paris. It begins with Michael Wells as the Boy student in an English boarding school type uniform as he works out an arithmetic problem adding fairytale characters. Transition to a charming classroom scene as entering students greet each other and gather to dance in a small circle. The teacher, danced by Raymond Tilton, is strict and formal, a bit stiff in attitude yet agile and swift in dance. He leads the eager students by demonstrating the lessons as geometrical movements, which the students eagerly copy. Enter Well's school Boy late to class, subjected to his teacher's and classmates' disapproval. Enter Jackie McDonnell's school Girl, the new kid in class, wearing a red cape and carrying a picnic basket. As this act is in black and white, the red cape stands out. She enters gracefully, then in turns performs a brief pas de deux with first the teacher and then each boy. A game of musical chairs ends with the Girl in the last chair and the Boy admiring her as the other students encircle them, the girls en pointe. As the teacher nods off at his desk, the Boy and Girl dance a playful pas de deux.

Eventually the classroom erupts in chaos, the Boy hits his head and, a la Wizard of Oz, the black and white film becomes color. Wells pulls off singing a decent rendition of The Way I Feel Inside from the soundtrack of the movie Sing. But gone is Gershwin's playful tune. The teacher and students now dance formally in elegant arabesques and battements to Benjamin Britten's regal score of A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

The Boy has been transported to a land of fairy tale characters: Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White and dwarves, and others, in turn emerge and frolic with the Boy. In this Company of ten dancers, each dancer has multiple rolls: Wells plays Huntsman, Prince, Jack, etc., while Jackie McDonnell is Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Alice, and so on. Raymond Tilton as the teacher takes on the evil characters as the Wolf, wicked Stepmother, Queen of Hearts, etc. Tilton comes across convincingly as the stern teacher, yet comically as the evil fairy tale characters. Central to the story is the budding romance between the characters played by McDonnell and Wells. Wells' school boy keeps rescuing McDonnell's characters from Tilton's big bad teacher, Wolf, Stepmother, Queen of Hearts, etc. McDonnell and Wells do have chemistry that comes across onscreen.

In a comical, happy ending, dancers' costumes are mixed up: a wicked stepsister wears a dwarf's beard, the Wolf wears the Stepmother's headpiece. The students' homework flies into the air, the young lovers are united and showered with heart-shaped confetti.

The original stage production was 45 minutes. But, as the film version is 35 minutes long, the classroom scene seems overlong at 19 minutes, leaving 16 minutes for the fairytale scene. That's a bit of a let down, as the fairy tale is the main attraction. The entire film runs to 45 minutes, including credits and an interesting behind the scenes sequence that includes comments by Julia Adam.

Dance films have been around since before The Red Shoes, but are a new performance experience for many dance companies in the pandemic age. Although films lack the electric dancer-audience energy of live performances, they offer other opportunities, such as close-ups and stop-action. Once Upon a Time is a film of a stage performance and, as such, the makers have chosen to stick to the live performance genre. The Fairy Godmother, danced by Danielle Troyano, anoints the Boy several times with her magic wand, but no obvious magic happens. Costume changes are done behind a screen, just as onstage. How much more magical it would have been if costumes changed with a wave of that magic wand.

Myles Thatcher's COLORFORMS for San Francisco Ballet showed how movie magic can be applied to dance films, with stop-action changes of scene and costumes, for example. Of course, a small company like Diablo Ballet doesn't have the resources of a San Francisco Ballet, but it's something to think about. Wishful thinking aside, this is a playful experience that families with young children can enjoy, and adults can enjoy those superb Diablo dancers.

Diablo Ballet's Once Upon A Time is available online May 7-9 and 14-16.

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