Diablo Ballet's Ambitious Swan Lake Suite Presents Entertaining Classics and Thoughtful Modern Works
By Michael Phelan
February 12, 2023—Diablo Ballet has started 2023 with an ambitious program of four works at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Titled Swan Lake Suite after the centerpiece work of this performance of four works, two modern and two traditional, the Company's new year is off to a great start.
The opening work, the world premiere of Echoes Through Time, was choreographed by Diablo dancer Michael Wells and Derion Loman, a former Pilobolus dancer and finalist for America's Got Talent and World of Dance. The performance program explains that Echoes Through Time "questions the concept of time being linear as it relates to perspective and connection to other beings." It's an interesting concept carried out with a complex choreography to an original composition by Michael Wall. Christopher Dunn's costumes of muted colors and ballet slippers seemed well-suited to the piece. Nine women take the stage, two seated in chairs, one downstage facing the audience, the other upstage with her back to the audience. As the standing dancers move in and out of unison and synchronicity, the seated dancers rise and are replaced. Eventually, the seated dancers end up in opposite chairs. Whether Echoes Through Time conveys the choreographers' idea, it's an interesting work that is well executed and enjoyable to watch. Wells has said that he originally choreographed this piece to include a single male dancer, but the dancer dropped out due to an injury, leaving an all-female cast. Wells was glad the work "landed" this way. One male among the women would have implied a romantic relationship, he said, while an all-women ensemble could imply various sorts of relationships, leaving more ideas open to interpretation.
Immediately following this pensive piece was the lively Tarantella Pas de Deux, from Balanchine's 1964 ballet based on an Italian folk dance. Julia Meister, in pointe shoes, a red top and white skirt with colorful borders, partnered with Lucas Tischler in black toreador pants and white shirt. Tapping a tambourine to Gottschalk's Grand Tarentelle, Meister very capably performed multiple series of joyous pirouettes and fouettés. Tischler nimbly executed forceful sisonnes and tournés while keeping time with his tambourine. This exuberant piece was balanced between two thoughtful works, the preceding Echoes of Time and choreographer Penney Saunders' 2018 work Sur le Fil.
Sur le Fil is French for 'on the wire' or 'on the line,' (fil is related to the word 'filament'), yet it isn't clear how choreographer Penny Saunders applies either meaning here. The program states that Sur le Fil was "inspired by Saunders' thoughts around the mischievousness nature of life, and the common reality we share of having personal secrets that we would prefer kept in the dark." How the title applies to that idea is anyone's guess, but the work itself is very well done. The playful costumes, by Meleta Buckstaff and Penny Saunders, consisted of grey pants with sleeveless tops and bowler hats, with dance shoes, not pointe shoes. A few dancers wore shorts instead of long pants. The opening scene is accompanied by a narration in French with the recurring question, "Combien de temps?", i.e., how long? A later recorded background audio is of a child's voice (Penny Sanders' little girl). The playful costumes belie the seriousness of this piece, which opens in semi-darkness to three dancers writhing and swirling in unison to adagio piano, composed by Michael Wall and Yann Tiersen. In contrast to the serious music, the eight dancers sometimes gesture in playful movements almost reminiscent of mime. There are serious balletic movements, too, such as arabesques and attitudes devant, making this a complex piece worthy of attention.
The highlight of the performance was the title work Swan Lake Suite, featuring selections from the full-length production: the Black Swan Pas de Deux, White Swan Pas de Deux, Coda and Variations, all originally choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1895 to a score by Tchaikovsky. Staging this work was a formidable challenge for Diablo's company of sixteen dancers, as the snow scene alone of the full-length Swan Lake can consist of 30 to 40 women dancers. Artistic Director Lauren Jonas has deftly applied her limited cast to select scenes suited to small numbers of dancers, hitting some of the highlights of the classic production and proving that good things do come in small packages. In the White Swan Pas de Deux, Amanda Farris as the White Swan and Michael Wells as Albrecht were elegant. In the iconic Four Swans dance, also known as the Dance of the Cygnets, Alina Gonzalez was partnered with three Diablo trainees in performing the sixteen pas de chat, or four dancers sidestepping in unison while holding hands with the dancer to the left or right and the dancer to her left or right. It can get complicated. At one point one of the dancers seemed to misstep slightly, but recovered quickly, and they all moved along without missing a beat. Amanda Farris was dazzling as the White Swan, but also especially noteworthy were Nicole Ciapponi as the Spanish dancer and Olivia Powell as the Black Swan. Formerly with San Francisco Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet, Ciapponi looked very polished and poised. Powell, sister of San Francisco Ballet soloist Elizabeth Powell, exuded a magnetic élan.
Diablo Ballet's Swan Lake Suite runs through February 13th at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. For more information, see diabloballet.org.