by Diane Claytor

Robert Dekkers and Tetyana Martyanova in "A Swingin' Holiday" Photo by Beringer Zyla

Robert Dekkers and Tetyana Martyanova in “A Swingin’ Holiday” Photo by Beringer Zyla

When the music starts, the lights dim and the curtain rises on Friday, Nov. 13, Diablo Ballet will begin its 22nd electrifying season, filled with elegance, movement and incredible dancing. There’s something for everyone – from the latest edition of the fun and popular A Swingin’ Holiday to the classical Tchaikovsky Dances duet by Norbert Vesak to the reprisal of Robert Dekkers’ stunning AnOther. And that’s just the company’s first repertoire!

In addition to an exciting and diverse program, Diablo Ballet is delighted to introduce its three new remarkable dancers who will be making their debut on this first weekend of the new season. In an article published last year on theclassicalgirl.com, writer Terez Rose wrote “Artistic director Lauren Jonas is very picky about whom she selects for the company. She hunts down strong, seasoned dancers who are gifted in both ensemble and soloist work…” And the new company members certainly fit that description.

Jackie McConnell

Diablo Ballet audiences may recognize our first new dancer: Jackie was a guest dancer with Diablo Ballet during its anniversary performance last year. Born and raised in Salem, OR, Jackie was a “typical girl dancer,” she reported, starting ballet classes at 6 years old at “a very small, tiny ballet school. Basically, I did it because my friend did it,” she said laughingly. Her friend stopped after a few years but Jackie didn’t. “I wasn’t one of those ballet girls that trained like crazy,” she said. “But I liked it and kept at it.” When she was 13, she went to Seattle for the summer, training with Pacific Northwest Ballet School; she continued training there over the next several summers.

As a senior in high school, Jackie wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do or in which direction she wanted to go. Acceptance to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts gave her the opportunity to go to college, take academic classes and major in dance. Once there, Jackie decided she wanted focus on modern dance. She started working with a contemporary ballet dance company and loved it. “I was like, oh, modern dance in pointe shoes. It doesn’t get any better than this,” she said.

Offered a position with the Nevada Ballet Theater, Jackie packed everything up and a week after graduating from NYU, headed west and back into the classical ballet world. Although it was a good experience, after a year Jackie realized it just wasn’t the right fit for her. This time she headed northwest, spending the next year in Seattle, dancing with a small company attached to a school and doing freelance dancing and guest roles. Again, Jackie realized that this wasn’t exactly what she wanted either.

Jackie McConnell dancing in Beautiful Maladies. Choreography by Charles Anderson

Jackie McConnell dancing in Beautiful Maladies. Choreography by Charles Anderson

California appealed to her so she sent a video to Company C, a contemporary ballet company located in Walnut Creek. She was invited to join their company and loved it. “I got to become an artist,” she said. “I was given lead roles that were more emotional. I really got to take on a role, figure it out on my own.” Four years later, Company C shut its doors.

While at Company C, Jackie kept her toes in the classical world, dancing in Oakland Ballet’s Nutcracker every holiday season. “I secretly love the Nutcracker,” she admits, and still looks forward to dancing it every year.

A year in San Francisco dancing with Post:Ballet, the San Francisco Opera and Menlowe Ballet came next. She took a class with Diablo Ballet and then had the opportunity to guest dance in the anniversary performance. “I knew about the company, liked the dancers, liked the environment. But there were no openings at the time. I kept checking in with Lauren. ‘Now?’ I’d ask. ‘How about now?’ I’d ask again. Finally, Lauren came to me and said ‘now’,” Jackie happily exclaimed.

Raymond Tilton

Timing is often everything and Raymond Tilton, another new Diablo Ballet dancer this season, is living proof.

Born and raised in the San Diego area, Ray is one of 7 kids; at one time, all 7 were dancing and 4 are still professional ballet dancers: 2 of his brothers dance with Ballet West in Salt Lake City and one of his sisters is with Arizona Ballet.

Timing is what got Ray to being where he is: His older sister, like many young girls, decided she wanted to be a ballerina. “My brothers and I were all into sports, soccer especially,” Ray explained. “We’re hanging out at the studio with our mom one day, waiting for our sister to finish her class, when one of the instructors comes out, sees 4 boys and announces that they give free lessons to boys. Our parents didn’t push it, but hey, it was free.” Or, as Ray’s father told a San Diego newspaper in 2006, “it fit our budget.” So the 4 boys started taking dance classes, “all forms of dance – ballet, jazz, hip hop and tap – but after a few years, it appeared that ballet was the one I was decent at,” Ray said. He was 10 years old at the time. A year later he moved to San Elijo Dance Academy, where he trained until he was 18; he then moved to San Francisco with his younger brother and twin sisters where they all trained at the San Francisco Ballet School.

Ray Tilton performing in Sleeping Beauty

Ray Tilton performing in Sleeping Beauty

After 2 years, Helgi Tomasson, SF Ballet’s Artistic Director, offered Ray an apprenticeship with the company. He danced with SF Ballet for five years, taking on many principal roles and unfortunately enduring several serious injuries. With his injuries curtailing his ability to perform as much, it was decided that he should take time off from dancing and focus his energies on recuperating.

Several months later, feeling healthy and strong again, Ray was trying to decide what his next move should be. He was committed to staying in the Bay Area since he had married fellow SF Ballet dancer, Jordan Hammond, in July.

Again, timing being everything, Jordan heard that Diablo Ballet was looking for a tall, male dancer. Ray traveled across the Bay to take a class. He talked with friend and famed choreographer Val Caniparoli, who gave him a great rundown on Diablo Ballet – about the company, the environment and the dancers. “The more I heard, the more I thought this sounds like such a great company,” Ray said. “After taking a class, I noticed that the atmosphere is so encouraging, so uplifting, everyone is there for each other.”

SF Ballet is one of the larger dance companies, so being with a small company “is definitely a new experience,” Ray continued. The dancers with SF Ballet were close, he said, “especially for such a large company. But with Diablo Ballet, there’s just a different feeling with the dancers, the ballet master, the choreographers. And the coaching – it helps you transform into the dancer you know you can be, enables you to express yourself more. The whole atmosphere is less stressful and more encouraging.” He feels healthier and stronger now – both physically and mentally and is looking forward to dancing with his new family.

Jamar Goodman

Jamar’s early years were spent in Hartford, CT. Through the City’s Youth Program, The School of the Hartford Ballet went to schools throughout the city, selecting 2 kids from each to participate in their Dance City Youth Scholarship program. “Our classroom teacher threatened to keep us after school if we didn’t try out and I certainly didn’t want to have to stay, so I got up, held my arms out, touched my toes and then got a letter saying I’d been accepted,” Jamar said. He started dancing that summer when he was 8 years old and “I loved it. It was like camp.” He continued during the school year, attending the School of the Hartford Ballet and training in classical ballet, modern, jazz and tap dancing. He started getting roles with Hartford’s Ballet Company and began focusing his training more on ballet.

In 1998, Jamar was 16 years old and the School of the Hartford Ballet folded. “I was supposed to be an apprentice the following year and now it was gone. I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he reported. The assistant artistic director of the former Hartford Ballet took Jamar to New York to audition for the American Ballet Theatre. He was accepted into their studio company and worked his way up. Although his body was young enough to still be molded, ABT didn’t have a school affiliated with it “so there was no real foundation for us kids. Not enough emotional support,” he said. He tried going back and forth to Hartford to attend high school but it just got to be too difficult. “I decided to focus totally on dance,” he said. And it was great. “I was living my dream.”

Jamar Goodman enjoying life in NYC.

Jamar Goodman enjoying life in NYC.

After 5 years, Jamar started wondering “What other styles could I dance?” So he decided to leave ABT and join the Pennsylvania Ballet, where most of their repertoires were Balanchine pieces. “I loved it. But after 2 years I thought, ok, this not what I’m looking for.”

Considering himself a diverse dancer, Jamar decided to go a different route: he joined the entertainment crew at Carnival Cruise Lines, appearing in Broadway/Vegas style shows. “It was such fun,” he remembers. “Again, I got to tour the world. It was like a paid vacation and we felt like celebrities. I thought, ok, this is more the type of thing I want to do.” After a year of cruising and enjoying the production-type performing, Jamar moved back to Hartford to be with family, finished high school, attended junior college, got my associate’s degree, and tried to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he said.

While still in junior college, Jamar started working as a paralegal, a job he really liked. He continued dancing, serving as a guest artist with ASEID Contemporary Dance Company in New York. He moved back to New York, transferred to the New York office of his company so he could continue his paralegal career; transferred to Brooklyn College to continue working on his degree, all while still taking vocal lessons and auditioning for Broadway shows. And he was happy. But again, he felt there was somewhere else he wanted to be.

Mayo Sugano, Diablo Ballet dancer and Rehearsal Assistant, as well as a long-time friend, suggested that the west coast in general, and Diablo Ballet in particular, should be Jamar’s next move. He wanted to get back to dancing professionally so he agreed. Jamar looks forward to working with other artists dedicated to giving under-served, troubled kids the same color and opportunities he was given as a young boy. He wants them to experience dancing, singing, poetry, and music. “I want them to understand that dancing isn’t something you only do at a party. It’s something you can do – and love – for the rest of your life and be compensated for it. It’s my mission to touch, move, and inspire them.” Diablo Ballet’s PEEK Outreach Program “really inspires me. I can’t wait until I can go out to the schools with Lauren and Eddie.”

Diablo Ballet dancers in Robert Dekkers' AnOther photo: Tiffany Bertolami-Fong and Michael Malerba

Diablo Ballet dancers in Robert Dekkers’ AnOther
photo: Tiffany Bertolami-Fong and Michael Malerba

All 3 of these new dancers will perform in A Swingin’ Holiday Nov. 13 -15, which is set to 30’s and 40’s music by legends Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Nat “King” Cole and Wynton Marsalis as well as jazzy renditions of Tchaikovsky’s  Nutcracker Suite, all performed live by the Diablo Ballet Swing Orchestra; Jackie and Jamar will also dance in a reprisal of Robert Dekker’s stunning AnOther, set to Yann Tiersen’s music from the film, Amelie, and praised by the Huffington Post as showcasing “the tremendous versatility and style of Diablo Ballet.” Ray will be seen in the Diablo Ballet Premiere of the
 classical Tchaikovsky Dances duet by Norbert Vesak,
 set to Tchaikovsky’s score from the opera, Eugene Onegin,
 and made famous by the internationally-adored duo Cynthia Gregory and Fernando Bujones.

You won’t want to miss meeting these incredible new company members or seeing the other fabulous Diablo Ballet dancers. Tickets are still available for the opening of Diablo Ballet’s 22nd season and may be purchased by calling 925-943-7469 or visiting diabloballet.org/tickets.

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