From the outside, Diablo Ballet’s 18th season is all about the numbers.
One big-name choreographer: San Francisco’s Val Caniparoli. Two live musicians: cellists Daniel Reiter and Paul Rhodes. Three performances: Nov. 18 and 19. Four hours of rehearsal every day to bring these experienced professionals to peak form. One, two, three, four — like a dancer counting to keep time.
But it’s the five minutes watching guest choreographer Dominic Walsh (see video interview) rehearse the dancers that are golden, erasing all thought of numbers.
In a dance studio in Walnut Creek’s Shadelands Art Center, a plush, squarish chair with curvaceous legs stands in the corner. The dancers approach it repeatedly; spin and sit, spin and sit, spin and sit.
Open-throated arches complete each elastic phrase. The movement is aggressive, but without violence. Two partners link arms and move their feet to separate, becoming in the process co-dependent, intimately entwined by their shared center of balance.
The female character’s ecstasy is expressed in the arc of her leg as it descends. Her male partner’s command is revealed in moments when he breaks away, then returns at precisely the moment to arrest her momentum.
“Stay aware of who leads," Walsh coaches. "Otherwise we’re practicing imperfection.”
He climbs onto the chair and grasps one knee to demonstrate a “sleeping” pose. Only a cat — or a ballet dancer — could make the spiraled form appear comfortable.
Walsh is staging a contemporary interpretation of Michel Fokine’s Le Spectre de la Rose, a classical ballet based on a poem about a debutante who falls asleep and dreams she is dancing with the spirit of the rose she holds in her hand.
Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russe premiered the work in 1911, with Vaslav Nijinsky as the Spirit of the Rose.
“My version is meant to pay homage to the original. I’ve adored the piece and am fascinated with Nijinsky," Walsh says, during an interview after his first day of rehearsal.
The ballet is often presented to showcase an exceptional male dancer.
“I wanted to choreograph it for Domenico,” Walsh confirms. “He has a great imagination as well as tremendous classical technique. He is a dancer with understanding of movement who is interested in the character as well as the ballet.”
He is referring to Domenico Luciano, a member of Dominic Walsh Dance Theater in Houston, who is a guest artist with Diablo Ballet this year.
Walsh has discovered a mutual hunger for narrative works in the company’s dancers.
“They work with a variety of choreographers and that makes them able to quickly adapt to different styles. If you know five languages fluently, you’ll be able to grasp a wide range of concepts rapidly. These are seasoned, mature dancers who take advantage of character development and the psychological aspect of the dance,” he says.
“I just want the audience to appreciate these incredible dancers as well as this gorgeous score played live,” he wrote, in an email sent while jetting across the globe to set another ballet.
The sought-after choreographer found his initial inspiration in the music of composer Elena Kats-Chernin, and entered the studio with few preconceived ideas.
“When Val is in the rehearsal room creating, you are reminded of what a true master at his craft he is,” Artistic Director Lauren Jonas says. “I am thrilled by this new creation, Tears from Above.”
Back in rehearsal, there are no tears, just sweat.
The dancers are discovering the sneaky complexity to Walsh’s work. The honest kinesiology of gravity causes a chain of physical collapse one moment, then exquisitely crafted, only-a-classically-trained-dancer-could-do-it movements the next.
It’s what these dancers practice all day, and it passes without remark as Walsh’s slim eight hours of rehearsal dwindle.
Diablo Ballet is back to the numbers: Four more hours to set the last ballet. Three works to light and bring to the stage. Two casts to hone and perfect. One small company of elite dancers to share with a community for 18 tough, terrifying and terrific years.