How One Company Navigates the Messy Ballet World

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Raymond Tilton and Amanda Farris In the Black Swan pas de deux. (Aris Bernales)

Onstage, ballet appears to be a refined and noble art, yet offstage it has weathered myriad sordid scandals through the centuries. Today, a handful of the standard-bearing companies around the world are reeling from allegations of harassment, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia. Dancers have long chronicled the peculiarly autocratic regimes in the ballet world, but there's been little impetus for change in an industry where careers are fleeting, competition is brutal, and ancient traditions are revered.

The ballet world is highly stratified, however, and there are small companies that quietly thrive — as if occupying a separate ecosystem. On the threshold of the 24th season of Diablo Ballet, I spoke with co-founder and artistic director Lauren Jonas about the phenomenon.

“When I hear these stories, they feel so foreign to me now,” she muses. “I did experience some of that authoritarianism when I was dancing professionally… I knew when I started Diablo Ballet, I wanted to provide an atmosphere that was different.”

Amanda Farris and Christian Squires in 'Hamlet and Ophelia' by Val Caniparoli. (Photo by Bilha Sperlin)

Jonas points out: “Larger companies may have struggles with a director, but when the director is producing successful work, with strong ticket sales, the board may be reluctant to do anything. But I think there are definitely going to be changes in how some companies are run, not just who’s running them… This is a new movement. It’s fantastic that dancers have felt comfortable to come out and express their feelings.”

With just 10 dancers, Diablo presents top-flight classical and contemporary work at venues both large and intimate in Walnut Creek and farther afield. The company has survived a few economic downturns; today, grants from the California Arts Council and from private foundations and individuals augment ticket sales to the tune of about $780,000. (In comparison, mid-sized companies operate typically in the $5–$10 million range; the largest companies are pushing $50 million and up.)


On this modest budget, Diablo continues to nurture young choreographers, as well as stage revivals of classic pieces by renowned choreographers like George Balanchine and Val Caniparoli. Performances consistently employ live music — an imperative that many larger companies jettison when money gets tight. And for the past 23 years it has run outreach programs at underserved schools and at juvenile hall.

Lauren Jonas in the Diablo Ballet studio, rehearsing dancers Jordan Tilton and Felipe Leon (Photo courtesy Diablo Ballet).

Talking with Jonas, I looked for insight into how Jonas has steered her company.

Your dancers have all had experience at larger, established companies, including San Francisco Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre. What do you look for when you hire?

I’ve always wanted our dancers to look different and to come from different backgrounds — that was my aspiration from the beginning. In a larger company, you often get niched into certain types of ballets, like classical or contemporary, whereas at Diablo you have to dance everything.

I have always looked for mature, experienced dancers. With young dancers, you have more training to do… You still have to train these dancers, but it’s not emotional training.

Most important, I want a positive working environment with absolutely no drama in the studio. With only four weeks to put on a performance, I’m asking a lot of people! We’ve had a few situations many years ago where one person has brought that tension, and it was hard.

Dancers of Diablo Ballet in 'Happy Ending' by Robert Dekkers. (Photo by Bilha Sperling)

You went from being a dancer to a company founder. Did you have any role models?

I’d always had role models as a dancer, but not as a director. Our co-founder Ashraf Habibullah was really my mentor. He’s an industry giant in the field of earthquake engineering and founded a major international company. He not only gave me a business education, he also taught me how to get the most out of people and inspire them.

We raised funds and put everything in place step by step; we didn’t rush it. You have to really get to know your community. We don’t have a school, and we need to be a part of the community, so the arts education piece is extremely important. It’s not just about performing; with the educational outreach, you are becoming an investment in the community. When I hire dancers, I make sure that is something that is important to them as well.

Rosselyn Ramirez and Christian Squires in 'Tears from Above' by Val Caniparoli. (Photo by Bilha Sterling)

What is particularly exciting to you about this upcoming season?

I’m passionate about supporting the work of young choreographers, like Robert Dekkers, whose Red Shoes premieres May 4.

While Robert in many ways represents our present and our future, I always try to bring back something from the past, and in March, I’m thrilled that Marina Eglevsky will return to the company to stage Solas by Salvadore Aiello. It’s a solo, about a woman who has just had a major loss; it’s set to "Bachianas Brasileiras" No. 5, a haunting score by Villalobos, which will be performed live. Marina had coached me when I performed it in 1998. This time, she will set it on Rosselyn Ramirez.

When I danced this solo, I had just lost my grandfather. He and my parents together had raised me. You see the story evolve in this solo – it’s chilling. Marina’s process as a dancer and as a coach was so inspiring to me; she is very clear in every intention.

The Bay Area has not been immune to ballet company woes. For instance, the messy demise of Silicon Valley Ballet — perhaps best known in its previous incarnation as Ballet San Jose and often considered the South Bay’s answer to San Francisco Ballet.

The loss of Ballet San Jose was devastating. I feel like, if it could happen to them, it could happen to anybody. For San Jose to not have a company is really sad — all that talent!

It’s tricky in San Jose because the tech industry is strong but I don’t know how interested they are in dance. Again, it ultimately comes down to knowing your community and what they want. And at the same time, trying to educate and develop audience tastes further, so you gain new audiences without losing the old.

Have you thought about your own succession at Diablo?

I think about succession all the time, in terms of management, artistic direction, and our outreach. An organization shouldn’t be dependent on one person, and it was always my desire from the beginning that the company continue beyond me. I’m trying to put the right people in the right seats – though of course it may not be my decision when the time comes.


Diablo Ballet's 24th season kicks off Feb. 2 at the Del Valle Theatre in Walnut Creek. For more information, click here.