With its Swingin’ Holiday program at the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts on November 16 and 17, Diablo Ballet has etched a high water mark in its 19-year history. Three important decisions contributed to the evening’s success and what it augurs for the future of the company: the first was to commission the program’s title work by former Houston Ballet principal-turned Broadway dancer and jazz choreographer, Sean Kelly; the second was hiring former veteran San Francisco Ballet dancer Aaron Orza, and the third was effecting a collaboration with Ballet SjDANCEco that brought dancers together from both companies in José Limon’s celebrated Moor’s Pavane. Having two dancers, Rosselyn Ramírez and David Fonnegra, who benefited from training in their native Venezuela, and the contacts that result from having performed there, can also be counted as a precious resource. This small company has bagged a big quotient of ballet artistry thanks to intelligent and sensitive leadership by Diablo’s artistic director, Lauren Jonas. She has slowly but steadily acquired dancers who, while having gained valuable years of experience in larger companies, tend not to show the slightest wear and tear.
The dancing in Friday night’s Swingin’ Holiday was fresh and spirited, while adhering to the rigors of perfect timing. Mayo Sugano and Aaron Orza, the two former San Francisco Ballet dancers who since leaving that company have on occasion danced together out of town, reunited in this piece for the first time on a Bay Area stage. Their gears meshed perfectly to deliver Lindy Hop swing and a ballad assortment of styles to the old standard, Merry Christmas. Orza’s Dick Tracy looks and Sugano’s long legs and appealing proportions, make for a perfect glam match. Derek Sakakura and Rosselyn Ramírez be-bopped expertly through quickstep combinations. Then Ramírez was charged with playing the nightclub guest who stays too long at the bar, executing a heart-stopping lift as she teeters aloft, all devil-may-care! Hiromi Yamazaki and Jennifer Friel Dille flounced their stylish period costumes with runway poise, and all danced with the kind of razzle-dazzle that one would expect from a seasoned Broadway cast.
The evening’s opener is Lento a Tempo e Appassionato, by Venezuelan choreographer Vicente Nebrada. It opens with Fonnegra and Yamazaki, who approximate each other in size and build, twinned and entwined in beige leotards. They rise from the floor to a standing position downstage from the piano and pianist, Roy Bogas, who accompanies them faultlessly, playing the Alexander Scriabin score. Yamazaki unfolds from Fonnegra’s embrace into languorous stretches. Though she is relatively small, Yamazaki’s lines are long and articulated, borne of steadfast concentration and focus. The shapes the couple creates are just as well formed when the duo is planted back to back as when they face one another. He whips her around and she holds her pose. She has full command of the musical passages that correspond seamlessly to the steps. It is as if the music and steps mirror the couple we see before us. Though the Scriabin score is starkly modernist, there is no dissonance between it and the carefully appointed classical detail seen in Yamazaki’s arm-hand fluency.
The third movement is quicksilver fast, with a cascade of directional changes. A thematic bicycling of the feet attends the passages, but never feels oppressively repetitive. Yamazaki eases into a thrilling high upside down lift, with legs extended into second position, yet never losing one scintilla of control.
A New York Times critic recently complained of having to sit through Moor’s Pavane “again!” Perhaps he has seen what originated as a Modern Dance classic too many times, but having first seen it in my youth when Limón danced The Moor, Betty Jones, the Moor’s Wife, Lucas Hoving, His Friend, and Pauline Koner, the Friend’s Wife, I am delighted that new generations can see it thanks to the José Limón Foundation’s continued guardianship of the work. It is a terse piece, imbedded with the stolen-glance gestures and glints of madness that betrayal can import into a society, no matter how small—even of no more than four people. In miniature, it delivers the nugget of Shakespeare’s Othello. Dance is the perfect medium for the psychological feints, underhanded maneuvers, and insidious devices that, like the parts of a well-lubricated lathe, turn an intrigue into a tragedy.
The piece is lit according to Foundation specifications, and staged by Gary Masters and Raphael Boumaïlla in keeping with its gentle orthodoxy. The Moor, Derek Sakakura, is in a sumptuous red, Robert Dekkers as His Friend is in bile-like shade of mustard, and Maria Basile as His Friend’s Wife wears burnt orange. The chiaroscuro light plays on the richly colored nap of the costumes, creating a period portrait of the pocket-sized army of nobles that by stages arrays itself against The Moor’s Wife, Heather Cooper. Cooper wears white on white, announcing her innocence. However, her dress is embellished with three softening puffs of sleeves below the shoulder, suggesting that she is a gentlewoman whose gossamer embraces might cradle either a husband or a lover.
The quartet of characters dances the pavane with courtly precision and pacing. Sakakura possesses a quiet and regal intensity that slowly simmers into something disquieting as Dekkers hisses insinuations near to the ear, pressing his head and arms from behind into Sakakura’s shoulders, his expression more unseemly and steps more deliberate as he counters the dismissal of his insinuations more aggressively. We see the distrust build in Sakakura, as he stiffens to maintain his stature, even as Dekkers inserts himself into an intimate pas de deux shared by Sakakura and Cooper.
Basile is coy when she partners with Dekkers. He is vigilantly present but always with one watchful eye on the royal couple. Theirs is a dance of mimetic gesture built on a foundation of courtly steps. We see who is lower, higher, or bent toward whom and who arrives with what motive. Dekkers and Basile dance ritual slow passes and then he suddenly jumps toward and away from her in fencing form, as if thrusting and parrying with an invisible foil. Basile circles Cooper, flattering her with little inclinations of the head. The plot turns on the appearance of a prop: a white handkerchief, introduced quite innocently in a pas de quatre and dropped as if by chance on a crossover.
Sakakura finally repulses the scheming Dekkers. One jumps high, the other low, repeating the pattern of the earlier interchange, but now exposing its barbaric underlayment. A leg whips across an arm that its opponent pushes away. Sakakura slices the air, and shoves Dekkers with all the anger and purchase attending his station.
Basile plays with the handkerchief in a triangle dance with Sakakura and Cooper. She twists her torso as if signaling a dangerous plot twist, and taunts Dekkers with the now-hated prop.
He jumps back from her taunts in turf-gobbling assemblés as Sakakura and Cooper step to the fore. The Purcell music stops at the intervals where there is a beat change in the staging. The men’s wrestling bodies escalate the contention over the evidentiary handkerchief. The women in parallel drop to one knee, and extend an arm in an appeal to the men. The music goes histrionic.
Dekkers and Basile are back to back on opposite sides of stage. Sakakura plants the kiss of death on Cooper’s mouth, and as she is stretched across his knee, he confronts her with the climax accusation that the audience has been primed to dread. She is rendered a supplicant by his mad rage, and on her knee again.
Dekkers and Basile move in front of the couple, shielding the audience from the travesty about to take place. The Moor’s wife is dead. His Friend’s Wife is aggrieved. A plotting factotum’s manipulations have brought the high low, a house to its knees and the guiltless Moor’s Wife an unwarranted death. The Moor’s Friend, having constructed the perfect betrayal, responds to his wife’s accusation with not a hint of remorse. Sakakura, distraught, grabs their hands, in the vain hope of wrenching culpability from depravity. As they open their clenched hands in dismay over the corpse, Sakakura covers his dead wife’s face with the now-debased handkerchief.