Diablo Ballet at a Quarter Century: Lauren Jonas Looks Ahead


Still stubborn after all these years

In its 25 year history, Diablo Ballet has become a performing arts icon of endurance. Established as a non-profit in June of 1993, their first performance was on March 10, 1994. As the 25th anniversary season of Diablo Ballet approaches this month, BayDance.com spoke with co-founder and artistic director Lauren Jonas.

Lauren Jonas
Lauren Jonas

Note: The Performing Arts Education & Enrichment for Kids (PEEK) Outreach Program provides an in-school creative movement curriculum. The PEEK Extension Program works with teenage girls incarcerated in the Juvenile Justice System. Lauren Jonas co-created the PEEK program in 1995.

BayDance.com: Over the past quarter century, you've received numerous awards, introduced innovations such as crowd-sourcing ballet, web ballet, and Gourmet Gallop fundraising, and so on. You've kept Diablo Ballet going when other companies have failed. When you look back on those 25 years, what do you feel is your greatest accomplishment?

Lauren: Well, I think it's many levels. I think it's staying true to your mission, but at the same time getting to know your community and what your community desires. That's very, very important. So, if we were in another state or another city perhaps our offerings would be different. But it's very important to know who your community is. So I feel like we've done a really good job of that. And then, of course, the unique part of Diablo Ballet, which I'm very proud of, is our PEEK Program. We started 24 years ago with one 2nd grade body at a school in Martinez, and now, 24 years later, we've been there every single consecutive year servicing the entire second grade. But now we also work with six Title I classrooms, and on top of that, we've started our fourth year in July at Juvenile Hall working with at-risk teenage girls. And that is a program I am absolutely in love with. Along with Edward Stegge, our PEEK Associate Director, has really has taught me about the world, and also it's really enhanced our PEEK Program for Title I young students. Last May we started a program at a facility called Redwood Place, which is a home for severely mentally and physically disabled adults. We took the PEEK Program there as well. I think that's one of the things that makes us unique is that we have such a robust outreach program that the dancers all participate in and really love. It's really key to our mission, and it always has been, and that also enhances the quality of the people, the actual person, of the dancers we have at Diablo Ballet, if that makes sense.

BD: In previous interviews you said that your dream, from the age of six...

Lauren: (laughing)

BD: That your dream was becoming a ballet dancer, but because you didn't have super-high extensions and the classical body type, you pushed yourself with self-motivation and determination to overcome rejection and achieve that dream. It looks like you've applied that drive and motivation to keep Diablo going. Were there any life lessons you learned in becoming a dancer that you applied to running the Company?

Lauren: I absolutely feel you just said it. My co-founder Ashraf Habibullah always tells me, "You're bullheaded," and he says that in the most loving way. But I just think most people who have experienced what I have throughout this 25 years wouldn't possibly stick with it. I'm really determined and very, very stubborn. And that is how I have stayed committed. I also had a wonderful ballet career, as well. And so I think you summed it up perfectly. One transitioned into the next as far as my personality and drive.

BD: In a 2014 Interview you said that coaching dancers is what you really love to do, and that you "bring a nurturing component... I feel like my job is to nurture the dancers so they feel they are in an environment where they can express themselves artistically and feel free and supported." Diablo Ballet has two community programs (Performing Arts Education & Enrichment for Kids), designed to teach young people to express their feelings through movement and teamwork. Do you feel that your community work, helping young people express themselves, is a natural part of your nurturing component?

Lauren: Absolutely. I feel that growing up I was so fortunate that my parents were able to afford to bring me to ballet. And I had wonderful public school experiences where arts were a huge part. We had assemblies of various different art forms, so many, many times. These schoolchildren in the Title I environment don't. Every year, through grants and individual contributions, we provide the buses, (buses aren't free anymore), to schools along with tickets so that they can attend a performance just for them in a live theatre to experience an actual live theatre setting. Not a movie theatre, but a live performing arts environment, where they can watch a performance and then meet the dancers afterwards. And part of that, which makes it a bit different, is we go into the classrooms that have attended the the performance, and we bring them some costumes and a little taste of the video of what they're going to see. We talk about how to be as an audience member. And we teach them some steps from the show. And we introduce the music. Regarding the "Swingin' Holiday" performance, we talk about how important jazz music is to our culture and where it all began. And then they experience the performance, and they get to meet the dancers afterwards, take pictures with them and get their autographs. Wel also provide a student guide that talks about the composers and the show, and then the following week, after the performance, we're back in their classroom with some of the dancers that they just saw on stage. It's full circle, where they can ask the dancers questions, we can review what happened at the performance. It's really incredible what they remember, little things like the lights, which is very exciting to them. Or just things that they notice, like the seats, some have never sat in seats like that, and so on and so forth. It's a three-pronged experience. Going back to what I was saying, that was something I had as a child, it was always important for me to be part of the community, and performing is important, and it's incredible, and it's why we have a ballet company but also being arts educators, is really important. And it's important for the development of our children. When we go into Juvenile Hall, where these young ladies have never had any arts education prior, you can really see what they have missed. That's why it's important that when we work in the schools, we get start in the second grade so that they remember as they grow up. We've seen research where it really makes a difference as they get older and what paths they choose.

BD: How long have you been doing that program now?

Lauren: We just began our fourth year in July. We work there once a week for ten months. Many of the girls are incarcerated six months to a year, so they're getting really quite a big impact.

BD: Have you been able to follow any of them after they leave the program?

Lauren: Yes. Yes. Actually Edward and I have run into a few girls-four of them randomly. One I ran into right across the street from our office. We were crossing the street at the same time and she's doing great. Edward ran into a couple of girls; one is a hostess now at a restaurant, one at a drugstore. They're all doing very, very well. And the recidivism rate has dropped since we've been working there. We have incredible support from the parole counselors and staff and the Principal of the school. When we work there we are mainstreamed into the classroom. The year-round school is called Mt. McKinley, which is housed in the quad at Juvenile Hall where their living quarters are. When we're there in the morning we take over one of the academic blocks. Currently, it's social science. We collaborate with the social science teacher on what he's teaching them and we infuse it into our program curriculum. It's quite an incredible process.

BD: How do you incorporate social science into dance or dance into social science?

Lauren: For example, one of the sessions that the social science teacher had created was about identity masks. And the teacher had them make masks representing who they are. They were quite amazing. He then translated it into how we wear a mask every day, whether we know it or not. Whether you're walking down the street and you want to portray a certain persona, or when you're in front of your parents maybe you'll have a certain mask. Or when you're with your friends or home alone. We have all these emotions that come out in our face and into a protective mask. How we transitioned that into dancing was that we talked about how on stage you wear a mask. You're portraying a character and want the audience to see how easy it looks even though it's not. How I discussed it was I have to wear a mask when I walk into the ballet studio and I'm looking at all of the dancers. Perhaps right before I may have had a very stressful situation or something happened that wasn't great. No matter what I'm feeling, for me to run this company in the way that I like to, I walk into that studio with a mask that everything is fine, everything is under control, because I feel that if the person at the top comes into work with their artists, and has a certain vibe about them, that affects the whole room. So that's how I personally expressed to the girls how I work my mask. And then we transitioned that into dancing by having them all say how they were feeling at that moment. And then we asked them to put on a mask of how they would like to feel, and then we put those feelings into movement.

BD: Wow.

Lauren: So it all transitioned into something a little bit more hopeful. And when you put music on and you have movement going, there's not one sad face in the room. It shows the real power of dance and movement and music and how it transcends. That's just one example of the collaboration. Another collaborative session was that we talked about why the world needs us tomorrow and and what identity means to you. Why are we in the world and the contribution that we make. We all, in a circle, talked about why it's important that the world needs us tomorrow. And then I spoke personally about...actually that day, that we were there, was Yom Kippur, one of the most important holidays in the Jewish faith. I talked about how you're not supposed to work during that holiday. It's about renewal and starting again, looking at your past transgressions and starting over fresh and positive. I said the reason why I came is because it is part of my heart and it's important to me. The teacher asked if any of the girls had heard of Yom Kippur. None of them had. So I talked about part of my identity is being a Jewish woman and how important that is to me and how I take that into my every day life. And then I taught them an Israeli dance. It's a group dance, and the music is klezmer in style. It's really uplifting. We had the best time! And in this one section, in the dance, where a few people meet at the top and they go down the center, one girl said, "Oh. It's like a Jewish soul train!" They related it to their own culture. It was so great because two sessions later, two weeks later, at the end when we were finishing our session, two of the girls said, "Can we do that Jewish dance again?" They loved it. It's teaching them different cultures as well, but that session was also me sharing my identity mask. The teacher we work with is amazing. He has the girls, instead of sitting in rows at desks like most schools, has them seated at their desks in a circle. So whenever anyone talks they have the floor and it shows the importance of a sharing circle. We're having a lot of fun collaborating because these are already methods that we're teaching them but we're discussing them a little bit more and then we get up and put everything to movement.

BD: It sounds like quite an experience.

Lauren: I love it.

BD: It shows. I've got one last question for you. It's a blast from the past. In a 1999 interview with Azlan Ezaddin of Critical Dance, you said, "More than anything, I would like to say twenty years from now that we're still here, that not only are we here but we're really strong, that the whole nation is familiar with who Diablo Ballet is, that we have more dancers, that we have a larger budget to bring in bigger name choreographers... and to maintain quality. That is my dream and that is what I wish for the most." Here we are now, nearly 20 years later, and it seems that you've realized your dream. Diablo is still here, you have bigger name choreographers, national recognition. Obviously, you want Diablo Ballet to keep going after you retire someday. What is your dream, your goals, for Diablo Ballet in the next 25 years?

Lauren: (laughs) I hope it's in the hands of somebody who can take it forward in a positive way, but in their own way, and that it continues to move and grow. But I would really love to start an education program and be able to have a training program, which goes along with our PEEK program. In addition, the PEEK curriculum that is really recognized now by state and government officials, I would really love to be able to help train other organizations that are interested in the curriculum. This year we we received a grant from the California Arts Council that included the hiring of a Visual and Performing Arts specialist, the acronym is VAPA, and that's what our curriculum is based on, which adheres to the national core standards. When you're teaching in a school setting during school hours and not in an after school program, you need to follow and accomplish these standards. That's another reason our PEEK Program is unique. It's not something we put together hodgepodge but It goes with the curriculum, and then we infuse our own innovative stamp on it. I would like to be able to offer assistance to other arts organizations that are interested in how we've run this program, because it's a huge part of what we do being in six classrooms, every month during the entire school year, plus the Juvenile Hall program, and the adult program. And we are also in conversation with John Muir Health Concord. They contacted us as they're one of the only art behavioral programs in a hospital, and they would like us to help with teens that suffer from severe addiction and behavioral issues. They've seen the difference it's made with the girls we've worked with and also the students. So I feel that would be really important for Diablo Ballet's future, to have a training facility that would help and incorporate other organizations.

We're still growing with dancers. We've been smaller than we are now, but it would be nice to have a few more. And next season, our 26th, I'm in conversation with several choreographers who are very important in today's dance world, which is exciting. What I really want is for Diablo Ballet to continue and grow beyond me. I'm not ready to leave any time soon, but eventually it would be wonderful to hand it off and for it to continue to grow and blossom in someone's eyes-somebody who can take it forward who has similar values but also has their own identity. You hear about some situations where the Artistic Director has been in the position a very long time, and then someone else comes in with their own ideas and takes it down to the ground. That would be very unfortunate and I don't think anybody wants it to go downwards. I personally want more and it to be better and better. I'm constantly striving for that. I don't like just being stagnant. I want the dancers to have more. I want the audiences to have more. I want the budget to be more. And it's been growing, and everything's going nicely, but it's hard sometimes when I get hard on myself and I feel like I wish this was better and that was better. And I have to say, "Well, you've been here 25 years and you're still here. So that's really good." I have to remind myself of that. Recently, we've been going through footage of performances throughout the 25 year history and watching films of when I was dancing and the beginning years, and the dancers who were here. And we've been going through old photographs, because we're putting together a retrospective. In so many ways it feels like yesterday, and in so many ways it feels like forever ago. It's a surreal experience. I experienced this a little during our 20th, but it's so much bigger in our 25th. I never take it for granted, I never feel like there's one day when I can just-ahhh, just relax, okay, I've got this. (laughs) It's constant. It's like a little child that needs constant feeding to develop. That's how I feel about it. I have such a wonderful team, board and staff and they all make this happen in such a beautiful way. They're so on board and willing to do anything. I feel very lucky.

Diablo Ballet's season opens with A Swingin' Holiday and More on November 9. The 25th season celebratory performance runs March 22-23.

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