Losing, and Finding, Their Footing
Because of their size, chamber ballet companies who want to perform classical ballet find themselves up a creek. So they restrict themselves to presenting the odd Grand Pas de Deux from something or other. Audiences get their dose of “real ballet”; dancers stretch themselves into the rigors that most of them trained for, but rarely get to use. Out of context these pas de deux, even if well performed, often look naked. The choreography is simply not designed to be seen against a blank wall. In Petipa, in particular, the pas de deux are mostly communal events—whether on a court, in a village or spirit world.
So you have to give Diablo Ballet—seven dancers—credit for going out on a limb. The company already has its share of pas de deux. Instead of adding another one, co-artistic director Nikolai Kabaniaev decided on “Paquita”, the pas de deux to be danced by Lauren Main de Lucia and guest artist Artur Sultanov, with an octet of young women from four local ballet schools. (They have done this twice before). The result was both frustrating and gratifying.
The Bay Area clearly has many good training institutions. In terms of placement and stylistic integrity, these young dancers, though unequal—particularly in terms of speed and the demands of the footwork—to the choreographic demands knew what they were striving for. They tried for cohesion and some kind of purity though a few of them may never have heard of épaulement.
Besides the good community relations, there also is a certain charm in watching young dancers stretch themselves in ways they probably have never done before. It made me wonder whether these young dancers were not much closer to what we might have seen in the 19th century when technical demands are not what they are today. In one of the two demis, Daniella Zlatarev, you could see a possible future professional. At the very least, this “Paquita”, credited as “by Kabaniaev after Petipa,” suggested the importance of a corps in classical dance. For that alone Kabaniaev’s choice was a good one. Afforded more rehearsal time, the result also might have been less ragged.
More disturbing was the performance by guest artist Sultanov. Every dancer has off nights, and this may have been his. More bothersome than falling out of his turns, were Sultanov’s mannerisms of foregoing phrasing in favor of shooting for photo op poses. It can’t be a matter of style since he did the same thing in much more contemporary repertoire when performing with Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet a few years ago. Sultanov has three major assets: he is Vaganova trained, has performed with the Kirov, and he is tall and long limbed. How much of a dancer he is, he has yet has to prove. De Lucia, in her second year with Diablo, is tall—hence bringing in Sultanov—and was an adequate, though curiously charmless, ballerina.
The rest of this well balanced program offered two pas de deux, ‘Belong Pas de Deux’ from Norbert Vesak’s “What to Do ‘Til the Messiah Comes” and Val Caniparoli’s “Aquilarco”, and a reprise of KT Nelson’s “They’ve Lost Their Footing.”
The more intriguing pas de deux was Caniparoli’s. Choreographed for Evelyn Cisneros and husband dancer Stephen Legate for her last Gala with San Francisco Ballet in 1999, “Aquilarco” uses an insistingly percussive cello score by Giovanni Sollima. One of Caniparoli’s distinct gifts is his ability to draw on social dancing and inflect its couple patterns with the easy grace that is so infuriatingly absent from what passes for ballroom dancing these days. At times the congenial “Aquilarco” recalled square dance’s do-si-do’s. A lovely rubato quality enlivened the measured walking that became strides and runs and finally burst into jetés. Variations spin off like so much froth only to curl in on themselves like steps recalled. While the piece was a gift for Cisneros, it also draws on Legate’s suave casualness. Diablo’s Erica Johnson and Edward Stegge, in a somewhat—for a ballet dancer—unusual crew cut, beautifully realized the piece’s wit and comfortable sensuality. There was something wonderfully naïve and sexy about Johnson’s planting her hands on jutted hips to watch Stegge show off for her.
A much more grounded physicality heated Tina Kay Bohnstedt and Jekyns Pelaez’ “Belong.” In the opening passage the two dancers, in unitards so flimsy as to be almost irrelevant, intertwined their bodies in Jack Carpenter’s murky sea of blues and greens. The dancers looked like bottom feeders on the ocean floor. Then they gradually rose into light and individuality only to once again dive into the deep where you had to guess who did what to whom. The highly athletic upside down splits, Bohnstedt riding, swimming, hanging and diving from Pelaez’s shoulder, impressed more with their daring than emotional connection. “Belong” is a one idea piece, but was bravely realized and held its own.
Bohnstedt, who danced as if there was no tomorrow, was again paired with Pelaez in the rough-edged physicality of Nelson’s “They’ve Lost Their Footing.” The piece, which has returned to Diablo several times since it was commissioned in 1999, looked very good. The first couple of times, Hoven Droven’s folk-inspired rock, which sounded like nobody else, drew attention away from Nelson’s quirky choreography. At least to these eyes. Now the music didn’t sound nearly as interesting. Nelson’s choreography, on the other hand, particularly for the two couples, gained in stature. With angled feet and knees up to their ear, plunging from vertical leaps into deep plies, the dancers looked like strung-up puppets. But you couldn’t miss a sinister note of foreboding about this drunken-peasant dancing of rocking heads and air-pedaling legs. At the same time much of the choreography was stylized to the point of looking pictorial, as if Nelson had plastered her figures against a blank canvass.
In the beginning “Footing” appeared to be Bohnstedt’s nightmare; she started the piece leaning and scratching herself against the stage frame like a caged animal in heat. But in her head-butting encounters with Pelaez, she seemed very much the force in control of this mayhem. An adagio duet for Johnson and new company member David Fonnegra showed him to be an attentive partner with a strong performance personality and a good technique. A fine addition to take to Bangkok where the company will perform in October.