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Diablo Ballet: How Tweet It Is

March 2, 2012

Diablo BalletIt’s a good thing that dance reviewers who have spent decades studying, discussing, reading about, and agonizing over their work aren’t insecure types. Were that not the case, Diablo Ballet’s plan to have selected audience members Twitter reviews of their weekend performance, “Inside the Dancer’s Studio,” might — well — make twits of us all, and in 140 characters or fewer.

It’s a gimmick, to be sure, but the Twittering of dance reviews, free of the controls of editors or other aesthetic gatekeepers, is one more sign of upheaval in an arts world increasingly strapped for public and private cash, ever more competitive with all the toys and distractions of social media and personal technology, and growing more dependent not only on its skills but on its wits (or perhaps in this case wit) to survive. At each of Diablo Ballet’s performances, a maximum of eight twitterers will be sequestered in the back of the house at the Shadelands Art Center Auditorium. “Our marketing director will be monitoring everything,” said Lauren Jonas, the company’s artistic director. “They have to turn off their keypad light and their sound. I’m just interested in what their observation is.”

The company’s marketing director, Dan Meagher, said he thinks tweeting a 140-word review has as much validity as the work product of “people we give the title ‘movie critic’ or ‘TV critic’ or ‘dance critic.’ It’s going to be the average person, talking to their friends, who will get them excited.” The tweeters, preselected, were each given a free ticket to the show. The tweets will be retweeted, on the Diablo Ballet Twitter Page.

The Walnut Creek–based company, now in its 19th year, has weathered potential ruin more than once, not unlike a certain larger ballet company in San Jose. And, not unlike that company, benefiting from the kindness of friends has sometimes put it, paradoxically, at risk. Yet the troupe has persevered, finishing the last three seasons in the black, “not hugely but definitely,” said Jonas. “In this economy, every year we’re around is a celebration.”

Jonas, a product of the Marin Ballet who danced with Ronn Guidi’s Oakland Ballet, joined with American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet alumnus Lawrence Pech to found the Diablo troupe in 1993. Their taste buds for great choreographies seem to have been nurtured by their own backgrounds. The Oakland company under Guidi presented a marvelous repertoire of early great choreographies from the Ballets Russes era, reaching back to Bronislava Nijinska’s Les biches, for instance, in which Jonas performed at New York City’s prestigious dance showplace, City Center.

He thinks tweeting a review has as much validity as the work product of dance critics.

Diablo seeks out experienced dancers — those who have attained the rank of principal or soloist — from all over the world, Jonas said, building their roster in the same eclectic way their benefactor, Ashraf Habibullah, put together his start-up. They couldn’t have done it, she said, without Habibullah, who had founded Computers and Structures, Inc., a Berkeley-based software company. In 1995, Pech and Habibullah had a public falling out, and Pech departed. He’s been dance master and resident choreographer for the San Francisco Opera for the past 15 years.

Also Serving the Community

Habibullah was to pour some $400,000 per year into the ballet company. That ended when he left its board in 2002, concomitantly with the burst of the dot-com balloon, the 9/11 fallout, and the stock market implosion. Diablo had to scramble to fill the financial void. This they did, through small gifts and grants from individuals, corporations, and the government and by being paid to work in the schools, an effort that continues today. “We see a total of 5,000 underserved children a year. We see 250 second graders after school twice a month. We teach them how to express themselves through movement. We talk about turning emotions into movement — what makes them angry, sad, happy, proud. It’s very therapeutic to them,” Jonas said. “The [company’s] dancers are the teachers. When I hire them, I make them realize that this is something they have to do. I feel like we are really a part of the community.”

She goes to the schools with them, she said. Jonas retired from performing four years ago, having danced “much longer than I ever thought I would.” She waited, she said, so she wouldn’t have to hire more ballerinas, but she found it hard to take care of herself as a dancer while also taking care of her dancers as artistic director.

The company, never larger than 11, is at nine artists now. The dancers, who range in age from 25 to 39, work from September to May. Diablo doesn’t put on a Nutcracker, which leaves its dancers free to earn money guesting in that holiday cash cow with other companies in December. After this weekend’s Shadelands performances, Diablo plays San Jose State on March 16 and 17 and the Napa Valley Opera House on March 24.

“You need to keep thinking creatively and not keep doing the same thing.” – Lauren Jonas

The repertoire tends toward the plotless and neoclassical, and it has taken the company places. As one of three small troupes entrusted with George Balanchine’s masterwork Apollo (staged on Diablo 10 years ago by Balanchinian dancer Marina Eglevsky, restaged by Jonas, and kept up to snuff by Christopher Stowell, representing the Balanchine Trust), Diablo was invited to perform at an international dance festival in Cali, Colombia. They also dance Balanchine’s popular Tarantella Pas de Deux and excerpts from his Gershwin ballet Who Cares?

Shadelands, Jonas says, is an intimate theater. “You’re really close to the dancers and can see the expressions, and the muscles. And yet they’re onstage, with stage lighting and costumes.” This weekend marks the West Coast premiere of a pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s Mercurial Manoeuvres, set to Shostakovich; two works by dancers in the company; and ODC/SF Artistic Director KT Nelson’s Escaping Game, set to Zap Mama.

And, of course, this weekend marks a high-culture breach of the Twitterverse, an initiative that has already won generous press coverage. Once out in Walnut Creek all by itself, Diablo now competes for eyeballs with Company C and with Smuin Ballet. “How can we be unique, capitalize on our accessibility, and make people feel more included?” Jonas asked. “You need to keep thinking creatively and not keep doing the same thing.”

Janice Berman was an editor and senior writer at New York Newsday. She is a former editor in chief of Dance Magazine.