Diablo Ballet’s Newest Member and Comeback Kid, Aaron Orza

Diablo Ballet: Aaron Mayo

Diablo Ballet dancers Mayo Sugano and Aaron Orza in rehearsals for A Swingin’ Holiday.
Photo: Erika Johnson

Aaron Orza was born in Walnut Creek, California, and grew up in San Francisco, where he trained at San Francisco Ballet School, and was a corps de ballet member of the company for about 10 years. He joined Diablo Ballet this season.

Toba Singer: You are at what we can assume is the midpoint in your performing career. Referencing your time at San Francisco Ballet, can you say what you believe will change now that you are dancing with Diablo Ballet?

Aaron Orza: Now that I’m here, at this point not having danced for a year and now dancing where it is comfortable, I find that Lauren [Jonas, Diablo Ballet Artistic Director] is an easygoing person who has faith in me, knows what I can do, and who is not looking for faults but for the good things. You walk into work and it’s a positive environment. You dance without fear that your job is on the line, or that any mistake you make, even in rehearsal when you are learning it, is not forgiven. There is a calm, positive atmosphere, and so you learn quicker and make fewer mistakes and you’re less inclined to be injured.

TS: What are you dancing in Diablo’s upcoming program, A Swingin’ Holiday?

AO: I’m in the title piece by Sean Kelly. It has Christmas swing music, the Sugar Plum variation from Nutcracker, and other pieces specially arranged by Greg Sudmeier to make traditional Christmas music more entertaining. Greg conducts a live swing band, and just to hear the music, wearing Dick Tracy or 1930s mobster zoot suit outfits is great. I get to drive Mayo Sugano onto the stage in a Model T, and the set is a jazz club with a bar that reminds me of the one in Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free. Sean is a totally cool guy and I love working with him on this.

TS: You come from large family of ballet dancers. I know that the countervailing pressures of five ballet careers, sometimes in direct competition with each other, hasn’t been easy. If you had a child who wanted to train for a dance career, what interests besides those directly related to dance would you encourage him or her to bring along or develop over the course of their ballet training?

AO: I would encourage them to play sports, develop a positive team spirit, and no matter what, I’d want them to be exposed to break dancing, and tap, for rhythm’s sake, so that they could be grounded in the many realities of dance. Ballet is one dance form, but there’s so much more out there to learn from and enjoy.

TS: If you ask the man or woman on the street, “Is ballet more competitive for men or women?” most would probably answer “women.” What would you say to them about the competition between men in ballet?

AO: I would say that compared to the what the women face, competition is not so ruthless for men. We are all in it more for each other, a positive, friendly competition thing. That is how I was trained to view it by my teacher at San Francisco Ballet, Jorge Esquivel. He fostered a positive competitive atmosphere in class, showing us that we got the best result when we all worked together as a team. He set the example, he set the bar high, and whenever new people came in who maybe had that super competitive attitude, he would train them to work as part of the team. We were all great friends, and still are to this day: Lorin Mathis, James Moore, James Gotesky, Moisés Martín, Nick Scott, Oliver Halkowich, and Sergio Torrado. There are probably more who came and went who I am not remembering.

TS: I remember seeing you dance the Hungarian divertissement from Swan Lake with Pauli Magierek. It was the best in memory for me. Were there moments in preparing for it or dancing it that you want to speak about?

AO: It was really great. It was the first time since Arabian that Pauli, who is my companion, and I worked together since Rodeo. She’s a giver, and sometimes you get somebody who’s not a giver as a partner. They saw that and that we both look Slavic. [laughter]. I was bummed that I couldn’t do it again because of a back injury. Working with Pauli is to work with a professional—no drama queen stuff. Plus, she is amazing!

TS: Do you see your post-performing career centering on dance or something entirely different, and if so, what?

AO: This is cool for now and if this is where I should be I will know it, but down the line I do want to dance with a big company. I would love to teach, though not fall into the pattern of being stuck in the dance world my whole life. I’d like to do something that makes money, maybe have a restaurant. I do great barbecue and can mix a really good drink!

Diablo Ballet’s Swingin’ Holiday

Diablo Ballet  dancers Mayo Sugano and Aaron Orza in  A Swingin Holiday

Diablo Ballet dancers Mayo Sugano and Aaron Orza in A Swingin’ Holiday.
Photo: Bilha Sperling

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.

Diablo Ballet: Lento a Tempo e Appassionato

Diablo Ballet dancers Hiromi Yamazaki & David Fonnegra in the California Premiere of Lento a Tempo e Appassionato by choreographer Vicente Nebrada of Ballet Nacional de Caracas.
Photo: Bilha Sperling

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.

LEVYDance 10th Anniversary: Who’s in Charge of the Smoke and Mirrors and Where’s the Occasional Music?

LEVYdance performs LESS

LEVYdance performs Less: Yu Reigen (left), Josianne Valbuena, Scott Marlowe, Sarah Dionne Woods and Paul Vickers.
Photo: David DeSilva, LEVYdance / SF

Sidra Bell, the New York-based guest choreographer whose two pieces were featured in LEVYdance’s 10th Anniversary celebration on November 15 at ODC Theater in San Francisco, said in a preview interview, “I am more a facilitator than a choreographer.” It’s clear why a dance piece needs a choreographer, and unclear why it requires a facilitator, but Bell’s dropping the ball in both capacities was apparent in Less, which she set on LEVYdance and Nudity, which she created on her own dancers during a six-week residency in the Bay Area.

Two of Benjamin Levy’s older works, Falling After Too and Physics, book-ended Bell’s. He brought no new works to the company celebration. In the program, he explains his motive for giving the new works of the evening entirely over to Bell: “I wanted my dancers to be informed by working with another artist, while clarifying to them what it means to be a LEVYdance artist.” Two facts raise doubts about this statement: The first is that LEVYdance looks to be more of a brand than an established dance company, with only one of Levy’s dancers, Scott Marlowe, being a 10-year veteran, and the others, pickup dancers, and the second is that the individual he has chosen to work with his dancers rejects the role of choreographic artist in favor of “facilitator,” a function she neither defines nor fulfills.

The dancers in Falling After Too, Yu Reigen and Paul Vickers, wear drab, shape-blocking street clothes that are far less theatrically exciting than what the audience wore to celebrate the occasion. Facing one another, they hold hands as they dance circling arpeggios to live piano music. The arms start swinging and soon they push and pull to the limits of their acquired dance technique, completing a circuit that intermittently shorts out because he is pushing her away, casting off centrifugally, yet prompting her to come back for more until he doesn’t like the persona of himself that he discovers reflected in her movements. So he reconnects on a level of intimacy that is just enough to salvage his ego and dignity. You feel how taxing this process is for them as they strain away from each other, slam against the consequences of their own calamitous approaches, or more plainly, when he kicks the back of her knee repeatedly and she nonetheless continues to stroke him tenderly. For those of us who’ve come to see something stately instead of domestic violence-lite, the segment where Reigen and Vickers arch toward one another like slender birches, creating an arbor-ish canopy with their heads, adds a welcome layer of complexity. The brevity of the nine-year-old piece leaves it as more of a quick-study sketch than a finished work.

Substantial funds were raised and spent several years ago to improve the performance space at ODC Theater, but for “artistic reasons” related to retaining its exposed-brick open ambience, no curtain was installed. This is problematic when for artistic reasons, a program requires a curtain. With no announced intermission or pause, the seated audience witnesses black-clad stagehands with a studied lack of affect, drag a piano across a diagonal and shove it through an upstage door, yank cable onto the stage as a bank of lights descends to lower the ceiling, and a strip of klieg lights is strung across the stage to bisect it horizontally. Bored kids for whom the stage is too much of a temptation are shooed off of it when they try out their own steps during the scene change. Necessity is rechristened a virtue in the guise “radical” stagecraft. Call me a classicist, but an entire science that stagehands have taken pride in improving over centuries, intended to preserve the magic by shielding us from the cranking, dragging, and spiking, is tonight scrapped so that the show’s seams can be perversely exposed to us.

The voiceover words “your loss, weight loss, nameless” introduce Less. Vickers is huddled on the floor downstage right while two men and two women form a cluster in the corner diagonally opposite him. The costumes are white leotards for the women with attractive cowl-like ropes draped from the neck, but the leotard bottoms are so ill fitting as to get caught between the dancers’ buttocks. Did no one notice this wardrobe malfunction at the dress rehearsal and facilitate a fix? There is a menacing walkabout of the stage, where dancers you just know aren’t very scary offstage get to look a little bit that way onstage. The lone dancer does sideways chassés low to the floor, and like Quasimodo’s, these are announced by grunts that, as they aggregate, sound more like barks.

The women are challenged with side-to-side second position jumps. The barking dancer is now standing and rotating his outstretched arms the way you do in PT when you’ve had a rotator cuff tear. The remaining men half-lift Sarah Dionne Woods against the backdrop, and the first couple is left downstage, gesturing with rotating arms. The score is electronic, made musical by the occasional clap of a cymbal. Josiane Valbuena steps to the front to treat us to a shimmy. The lights go bright white. Scott Marlowe is fearless, allowing the movement to carry him as far as the choreography will permit. The thought in my head is, “I’d like a chance to watch them in class to see them actually dance.”

The dancers are behind a screen in the second segment. Marlowe walks forward with jazz hands. Reigen is standing downstage doing rippling seizure-like movements. Another woman upstage does the orgasmic shrieking part.

Social commentary in dance is difficult to bring off. If the comment is about alienation, it is best to not trick out the piece with blinding lights (this reviewer was seeing blue spots in front of her eyes post-show), a score that mostly consists of non-musical devices such as defective plumbing, car alarms, air-raid sirens or a robot voice with bad diction repeating the announcement “reduce the noise level” so that what you hear is “re-juice the noise level,” or repetition of the expletive “bullshit” in reference to what looks like war. War is anything but bullshit: war is for real and war is hell. If alienation is how you celebrate your company’s 10th anniversary, it deserves a libretto that justifies the choreography, and just as an actor or dancer playing drunk must play sober as the drunk does, expressing alienation works best when the dancer dresses for success, with every gesture pointing in the direction of the perfect outcome that never arrives.

Reigen initiates a mean-girls game of domination meant to demean the discipline of ballet. Unfortunately, the would-be dominatrix is largely inaudible thanks to the high pitch of the noisy score. When dancers in the mean-girl sequence speak, you are transported to the ballet academy dressing room of your youth, where complaints about class, casting, rival dance students and costumes, were communicated in nasal whiny voices and untutored diction that would never be tolerated on the legitimate stage, or if allowed, would cue Henry Higgins to sing a jaunty, “Why can’t the Californian ballet dancer learn to articulate?” What you end up with is a kind of Marat/Sade of Temescal and the San Fernando Valley, with one dancer yelling, “jump,” and the other answering “No!” but jumping, or the first dancer yelling, “higher,” and the second answering no again and doing it anyway, and on and on goes the gambit. One of the women is interesting to watch when she dances, but when she barks orders, it is tempting to offer her assertiveness training classes with coaching in voice and diction thrown in. It amounts to a radical-trite attack on the discipline of classical ballet under the faked rubric of sympathy for dancers. The great crimes against ballet dancers have nothing to do with the art form’s discipline or its high standards, but with the uncertainties of work, promotions, low pay, ill-equipped dressing rooms, lack of state support to cover not only company expenses, but dancer health care and attention to their injuries and retirement needs.

It is a relief when Scott Marlowe moves into the next segment doing a kind of femme balletic funky chicken. At least it’s dancing!

In Nudity the dancers wear black leotards and tights with broad transparent harlequin stripes. While revealing no sexual organs, Nudity does its exposé of the classical ballet art form to a score of guttural sounds, alarms going off and a gravelly-voiced old Frenchman singing a dirty ditty. There is minimal turnout, hips jut out delinquently to raise extensions higher, and dancers step into the risers, to “interact” by caressing and kissing individual audience members, including children and dance critics—a bad idea. To mock classical ballet you at least have to have the cred to be able to perform it as well as professionals who take daily class, and sorry, but that level of commitment is nowhere in evidence. This is not The Concert, nor Sandpaper Ballet, nor Etudes, nor Ballet 101, nor any of the many brilliantly choreographed and facilitated pieces that succeed in having dancers poke fun at their own training, or salute it because the source of inspiration for the work is as beloved as it is authentic.

And because it is authentic, Levy’s Physics is the strongest piece of the evening, bringing two couples front and eventually center, where the force field of their relationships creates the impulse for movement. Much of it is nihilistic, but well drawn, and its drama emerges from the resulting tensions instead of superimposed gimmickry. This is the Benjamin Levy I remember from a decade ago! The motive for reviewing this evening’s program was to find more to embrace in new works by him, but there were none, and of all the mysteries woven into this 10th anniversary program, the biggest one was and remains: Why not?

7 Questions with Choreographer Sean Kelly

Rehearsal Still: A Swingin' Holiday

Mayo Sugano and Robert Dekkers in rehearsal for "A Swingin’ Holiday" (Kelly).
Photo by Erika Johnson

Former classical ballet dancers often branch into teaching or choreography — or leave dance altogether. But whether it is because of the profound style differences, a preference for the classical form, or even a lack of awareness of the possibilities in the format, few make the transition to Broadway.

Choreographer Sean Kelly is one who successfully has made the move. After a successful ballet career, culminating in principal dancer and ballet master status at Houston Ballet, Kelly was hired by Twyla Tharp in 2003 to dance in Movin’ Out. He toured with the show for five years as dancer and resident choreographers.

After leaving Movin’ Out, he joined the first national tour of Billy Elliott as resident choreographer, where he modified Peter Darling’s choreography to showcase the abilities of the individual actors playing Billy.

In addition to his choreography projects, Kelly is a member of Rasta Thomas’s Bad Boys of Dance. Over time, his assignments with the company have included dancing and ballet master duties; most recently, he has added resident choreographer and associate director responsibilities.

Head shot: Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly

Dance Vine: How did you make the transition to Broadway from a successful career in ballet? Did you have to re-tool your dancing technique to make this successful?

Sean Kelly: When I first started dancing, I studied at a studio in Marin that taught all styles of dance like jazz, modern, Latin American, and ballroom, along with some ballet. It was later, when I went to Marin Ballet, that I began to focus primarily on classical dance. I do think that the variety of my early training helped me be open to different styles and techniques. I also think that the diverse contemporary repertoire I had the pleasure to dance while at Houston Ballet and other classical companies helped me to be a versatile dancer.

So, when I did make the transition to Broadway, I felt that I was able to pick up the various styles quickly. My classical technique was helpful, and I became known as one of the Broadway people who could help other cast members technically, as well as stylistically, with choreographers’ works.

Also, the experience of having been a choreographer and ballet master encouraged people to offer me some wonderful opportunities. In addition to performing as a swing for Broadway and touring productions, I have mostly been a dance captain, resident director, or resident choreographer — or a combination thereof.

As resident choreographer for a Broadway show or touring company, how often do you go back to check on things to ensure the cast is performing at peak wonderfulness?

I have always been either a swing or a resident on the tours I have been on, so I was able to check the show on a daily basis. I generally give at least some notes every few days so the show stays looking as good as possible.

It’s a delicate balance with noting, as the show usually is being performed eight times a week. I like to give enough notes to remind people of the details that make the show really strong without nitpicking too much. I want the cast to feel that I trust they will continually deliver a good performance, but also let them know I am watching and care that they and the show look their best.

For A Swingin’ Holiday are you using the original orchestrations — especially with the Ellington and Goodman? If not, who is doing them?

I am using the re-working of some holiday classics like Jingle Bells, the Dreidel Song, and Nutcracker selections by the likes of Duke Ellington, Ted Wilson, and Corky Hale, among others. Diablo Ballet Music Director Greg Sudmeier is arranging the music for the ballet.

Unlike ballet orchestras, most jazz bands are unused to phrasing work for dancing. How have you approached this challenge?

With Greg’s help, I have picked selections that I like, as well as ones that I feel are both appropriate to choreograph to and also ones that inspire me to create movement. I also chose a variety of tempos and qualities in the music to help make the piece more varied and to assist the dancers with their characterizations.

When working with dancers, is it more difficult to bring ballet to Broadway or Broadway to a ballet company?

I would say that depends on the dancers.

Some classical dancers are uncomfortable stepping out of the classical box, so to speak. However, given how much varied repertoire is expected from classical dancers these days, I think this is becoming less common.

For Broadway performers, some either haven’t had a lot of classical training or are somewhat uncomfortable trying it. But, these days, I also see more people with classical training in Broadway shows.

Personally, I’m a big fan of training in different styles, with an emphasis in classical study, because it likely will serve a performer well and prevent injury.

The Diablo Ballet dancers are incredibly excited and open to exploring different ways of moving. And, of course, they are well-trained classical dancers. That combination makes it enjoyable for me to work with them.

What would you consider your “dream project”?

Variety keeps me excited. I feel I have been very fortunate to be a part of some amazing ballets, in addition to some amazing Broadway shows.

In addition, I find it rewarding to take care of a show like Movin’ Out or Billy Elliot. At the same time, I love having the opportunity to be creative on a project like this one with Diablo Ballet, where I get to craft something new.

What do you have scheduled for the coming season?

I will be returning to Bad Boys of Dance, which is a company based out of Maryland that my colleague, Rasta Thomas, started about five years ago. Currently, I am the associate director.

The dancers in Bad Boys of Dance are a diverse group of athletic young men who have training in ballet as well as acrobatics. There are a few beautiful and talented young ladies in the company as well, but the main focus is to show how athletic and exciting ballet can be for men. The company has been touring extensively in Europe and has also traveled to Australia, New Zealand, and India this year. In addition to enjoying my work with the company, and hopefully passing on a lot of the wonderful training I have received, it has been fun to travel with this great group.

And there is good news for Bay Area dance fans — Bad Boys of Dance will be in the Northern California area January 22, 24, and 26, 2013, with performances in Modesto, Folsom, and Santa Rosa.


This weekend, join Diablo Ballet for the world premiere of Kelly’s A Swingin’ Holiday, performed to live music from jazz legends Duke Ellington, Nat “King” Cole, Wynton Marsalis, along with the familiar Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky. The Jose Limón classic The Moor’s Pavane and the California premiere of Lento a Tempo e Appassionato by Vicente Nebrada (Ballet National de Caracas) round out the program.

Friday November 16 at 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, November 17 at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

Lesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek
Call 925.943.7469 for tickets or purchase online at

Sean Kelly, Broadway choreographer, talks about his Diablo Ballet world premiere of A Swingin’ Holiday:

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Diablo Ballet dancers Aaron Orza and Mayo Sugano work on a sultry pas de deux to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” for our November world premiere of A Swingin’ Holiday.

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Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet’s Constellation: Ballet in Bright Lights

LINES Ballet: Constellation

Dancers Zack Tang and Yujin Kim. Mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani is in background.
Photo by Margo Moritz

SAN FRANCISCO, LAM THEATRE, OCTOBER 25, 2012: George Balanchine wanted his dancers to let him do all the thinking. Their job was to dance the musically challenging choreography of his imprimatur based on what it was not: classical. Audiences embraced Mr. B’s seditious brinksmanship, even though sedition was an overused term in the 1950s and 60s. Still, a hyper-extended leg or back, and a heel that only grazed the floor offered a delicious taste of subversion in a political and social atmosphere that blanched at the stillborn conservatism of McCarthyism. Balanchine’s collaborations with musicians shot a fresh breeze of neo-classical ballet through the newly constructed Lincoln Center, and the dancer’s job was to mirror Balanchine’s enthusiasm for the music and the creative process that rose in him like sap. Like Balanchine, Alonzo King finds his depth in the music; unlike Balanchine, King’s dancers are not the objects of his ministrations. They are the subjects. He wants them to think, question, challenge, and find the contradictions of dancing what’s inside as well as dancing against it. Constellation is in two acts containing a total of 13 movements. I will review some of them here, though not in the order in which they occurred.

In Constellation, the abundance of wishes that King imports arrives onstage as an embarrassment of riches, with moments that suggest a crise de nerfs, where all that is sentient in the dancer, the collaborator, the musician and the choreographer experiences a momentary overload. It does not worry those of us who are dyed-in-the-lycra King devotees. We know that King’s oeuvre is organic. Yes, the pieces he makes with musicians and dancers from around the world are discreet entities, but the energy that fires his collaborations issues from that organic material: it moves from one to the next, and there will always be an enriched and enriching nugget to take away from an evening’s offering.

Constellation opens with green light ceiling implants and a backdrop of the same lights. Mezzo-Soprano Maya Lahyani enters wearing a lush and somewhat overbuilt ruffled brick-red satin dress. Dancer Meredith Webster enters from the opposite wing, lengthening her legs into extensions. She reaches for a light and plucks it from above. Another dancer enters with swinging legs, turning, crawling and rolling to the spot where Lahyani is moaning a lament from Ricard Strauss’s Ach Lieb. David Harvey arrives, a light in each hand, arms raised, and (a mere three nights before the San Francisco Giants win the World Series), he is winding up for the pitch. The lights are the set, and represent a collaboration with Potrero Hill Electronic Artist, Jim Campbell. Campbell has a B.S. in Mathematics and Engineering from MIT, and has shown his work at the Whitney, SF MOMA and Harvard’s Carpenter Center. Here, his design is the pivotal element: Strings of LED lights take the form of square panels, and dancers wear or carry them like accessories. They bounce individual lights, or dance on a darkened stage with only the lights they hold in their hands visible as they move, so that their sparkle competes with feet as focal points.

Michael Montgomery is a bolt of lightning against the green and blue globes. He rolls through his moves, and then Webster, now in knickers-length black pants, enters. Ricardo Zayas joins them. In serpentine probes that are the prelude to locking an impossible pose, they marshal a strength and confidence where every muscle is stilled, but a foot shakes and the message is: “This shaking foot is both mine and part of the archive. I resist my fingers as if they are on fire. Thought it was about that turn? No! It is about this lunge that the turn sends me into.”

The third movement ushers in Keelan Whitmore. He is possessed of a LINES-iconic power quotient, and brings to the contemporary stage the kind of poetic ramp-up that Carlos Acosta has brought to classical ballet. The grid suspended behind Whitmore, Montgomery and Zachary Tang, is composed of blue lights on black. In perhaps the most compelling segment of this work, all three dance to a whoosh sound that slides over and back across a musical range. A dancer who has accompanied me on this evening comments that this could be even stronger if the dancers themselves were vocalizing the whoosh sounds. The lights brighten and the men dance as if they were large birds perched on a precipice. They approach and retreat, turning and spiraling until they roll away. Four women in grey velour skirts dance steps whose accents are down but where legs and arms go long, so that they seem to splay over the hollowed metal electronica score.

After intermission Yujin Kim opens Act II. She is holding lights and rotating her arms, so that the lights trace the circling patterns that begin at her shoulders. Caldwell’s LED grid is fully onstage as the set. It is in 1950s juke box colors that burnish into garish orange chromatics that recall the single seedy bar in what are euphemistically referred to today as “sketchy” neighborhoods, the lone neon beacon of faked warmth in a cold world where danger lurks. Kim, in a modified feather tutu, sets a light globe spinning. Montgomery scrutinizes the vibe and moonwalks his arms alongside the lights. The stage is now lit from above. The grid goes mobile, wavering like a banner in the wind as its lights change colors. A male dancer manipulates a smaller swatch of lights. He is wearing matte metallic pants. The pant legs are horizontally layered cylinders. Using tennis ball-sized lights variously as goggles, bocce balls, or baseballs, an all-boys, all-balls game takes shape. Splattering steel drum arpeggios accompany the men. They set themselves spinning in all directions, striking poses and rolling out the lights, their glowing props strung across a diagonal like footlights. Women and men now grab a pair and the stage becomes a carnival, dancers moving lights through space to sound. For some, the medium eclipses the message, and because it is electrified, sorts itself into the cheap-thrills pile of gimmicks.

Montgomery becomes a Christopher Bruce–derivative rooster who struts with his back to the audience. Another dancer is moving downstage with lights in his mouth. Webster is elegant, fully in charge of her lights. A dancer enters with a boa of lights. She drapes them over her shoulders, as would a stripper. The company engages, tethered by strings of LEDs. We see extraordinarily energetic work by Courtney Henry, Ashley Jackson, and Paul Knobloch, as the swath of lights floats to a ceiling where lights are blue. Henry is covered in lights and fashions them into a square.

A line of dancers enters bearing small screens of white stadium lights. They turn them upside down overhead as roof cover for Carolyn Rocher. She moves low across floor and raises herself in front of them, her legs imaged on the light screens.

As enormous puffs of dry ice fill the upstage area, dancers come forward to form a semicircle around Henry. After breaking into mini-solos, they exit, leaving Rocher. The original grid returns to center stage and the smaller swath moves so that it is superimposed on the upper left-hand corner, forming what looks like an electronic U.S. flag. Lahyani and Whitmore seem to pull strands of lights out of the flag as they enter and circle each other. Whitmore does flexed-footed hops, his back undulating. Montgomery and David Harvey dance a duet. With rubbery spines, they drop and rise, trading lifts as Whitmore works his spectacular body separately, sweeping the floor with his tree trunk-like legs. The push is unrelenting, and at a certain point you are thirsty for a relevé that rolls through the foot, or an extension that unfolds. There is a seamless resolution into pendulum movement, and the four stretch across the breadth of the flag backdrop, and exit.

Webster and Harvey dance an expansive pas de deux in which extensions jut back and forth as a piano trills. After the extravagance of the lights, rough-hewn simplicity is welcome refreshment. It feels as if the stretches and inclinations themselves release the notes in the privacy and quiet of a not-blazoned display.

A loud crackle of interference, and Rocher and Whitmore reappear. Renewed whooshing sends Whitmore into á la seconde turns. The music moves from whoosh to Afro-Percussive, and the dancers become the drums.

Rocher, as a bird, is backed up by replicant birds flying across the screen of lights. We’re caught in a storm of light, sound and movement. Henry returns in swirls of butter yellow tulle, to which she offers the riposte of spitfire attack. Tall and lovely and reminiscent of the former Kathryn Dunham dancer, Trina Frazier Parks, Henry circles long legs around herself, a preparation for taking luxuriant, yet flexible and commanding strides. To sacred music, Montgomery and Knobloch dance a pastorale legato etude, testing one-footed balances.

A white scrim covers the grid. Lahyani returns. Two men in black knickers join her, more animal than human. A man in long pants wrestles with one of the animal men who has been wrestling with himself. Lights flicker above the fray. Metallic clanking returns.

When displeased by a choreographer’s steps, there are New York-based critics who instead of saying “I didn’t like these steps,” pose the question, “This may be movement and theater, but is it dancing?” The works of Jorma Elo and Alonzo King are frequent targets for this brand of query. In this reviewer’s opinion, Ashley Jackson is the best dancer of King’s work and Melissa Hough the best dancer of Elo’s work to put this idle worry to rest. Both dancers ignite like rockets, hitting their stride with spot-on precision.

There are dripping sounds. Two men lift and struggle. Five dancers array themselves as if they were baseball players. A violin sounds. Each breaks out of his or her place into dance movement.

LINES Ballet: Constellation

Dancers Zack Tang and Yujin Kim
Photo by Margo Moritz

Two men and Webster join Lahyani. Shadows stream across the screen as Yujin Kim enters wearing an elegant calligraphic-print costume. She begins a series of sweeping gestures, catching a light and sending it across the stage to Rocher. There is a first approach, a second and then a pileup of Kim and a partner. The bodies reverberate with the sound that Lahyani sends across to them. Out of the pileup, a standing level pas de deux matures. They reach high, break apart and she drops and redeems herself with a grasp of support that is there for her until she can once again be an equal partner. Then they circle one another. There is no time to rest or stop in this full-out surge from a leading edge and wedge of a company on the express track to immortality. Alonzo King is living the title role of one of his best-known pieces, Scheherazade. Mine is a plea to let him finish telling his thousand stories.