by Diane Claytor
On May 26, 1971, Lew Christensen’s Airs de Ballet made its debut at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts. Created for the San Francisco Ballet, choreographed for and danced by New York City Ballet principal dancer Violette Verdy, the ballet was described by the San Francisco Chronicle as a “whirlwind of non-stop dancing and bliss, innocent grace and an expression of joy.” While the ballet remained in SF Ballet’s repertory for many years, it hasn’t been performed for quite some time. And, research indicates that, surprisingly, Airs de Ballet has likely never been performed by any other ballet company either.
On Fri., Nov. 11, this light and playful ballet makes a glorious return when Diablo Ballet opens their 23rd incredible season at Walnut Creek’s Del Valle Theatre. Artistic Director Lauren Jonas said, “I last saw Airs de Ballet when Joanna Berman (Diablo Ballet’s Regisseur) danced it for the San Francisco Ballet. When she suggested it for our holiday program, I was extremely excited. Its musicality, fast footwork…it’s a wonderful, joyful ballet.”
Joanna performed in this ballet many times as a former principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet. “As soon as I heard the music again,” Joanna said, “all the steps came flooding back to me. I could see my friends on stage dancing it. This ballet is so musical, your body just remembers the steps. It’s a total pleasure to dance. It’s joyous. It’s pretty. It’s clean. It’s simply the joy of dance. And it’s perfect for the Diablo Ballet dancers.” She and Lauren are working together to coach the dancers.
Also working with the Diablo Ballet dancers is Leslie Young, who retired as a soloist with the San Francisco Ballet and now stages Lew Christensen’s works around the country. She echoed Joanna’s thoughts when describing Airs de Ballet: “It’s so musical. You just can’t forget it.” She, too, is so excited that it’s going to be performed again after all these years. “It’s a sweet and beautiful ballet. Dancers have told me that once they dance it, they remember it always.”
Lew Christensen was born into a musical family in 1909; his grandfather taught dance and both his brothers were dancers – in fact, all three young Christensens danced with the SF Ballet after its founding, by William Christensen, in 1935. The three boys formed a vaudeville act and all three also performed in a Broadway musical, The Great Waltz. In 1935, Lew and Harold joined the Metropolitan Opera’s American Ballet Ensemble. Lew joined the SF Ballet and was named associate director in 1949; he co-directed the company with brother William in 1951 and was promoted to director in 1952, a position he held until his death in 1984. It is said that Lew transformed the SF Ballet to an internationally recognized company, creating more than 50 ballets, choreographing over 110 pieces, and introducing them to the world through highly acclaimed national and international tours. His ballets are known for their craft, musicality and wit.
One early review of Airs de Ballet stated that, “Christensen sees to it that every action of the dancers’ joints and limbs is stimulated by a musical prompting…the light flinging patterns and sizzling beats give the impression that the dancers are skating on air.” Another, from a 1975 performance, referred to Airs de Ballet as a “poem in true romantic vein.”
As wonderful and exciting as Airs de Ballet is, it’s only one of the three amazing and uplifting ballets in Diablo Ballet’s 2016-17 premier. The show also features A Swingin Holiday, said to be “a wonderful fusion of styles (ballet, jive, social dance, jazz)…” by heather dance.com. This fifth annual edition of A Swingin’ Holiday is again staged by Broadway choreographer Sean Kelly, and set to the music of Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, and jazzy renditions of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite, all performed live by the Diablo Ballet Swing Orchestra. Rounding out this holiday program is Happy Ending by Resident Choreographer Robert Dekkers, first introduced to Diablo Ballet audiences in 2012. Robert described his ballet as “a quirky and whimsical work that wryly alludes to our never-ending search for happiness. It’s set to a playful score by Australian composer Pogo and will definitely put a smile on everyone’s face.”
There’s no better way to kick off the holiday season than a trip to Walnut Creek’s Del Valle Theatre (1963 Tice Valley Blvd.) to enjoy another phenomenal and spirited Diablo Ballet performance. Performances are Nov. 11 at 8 p.m., Nov. 12 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Nov. 13 at 2 p.m. Tickets may be purchased online by going to diabloballet.org or https://lesherartscenter.showare.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=662 or by phoning 925-943-7469.