CHAUTAUQUA - For 26 years, the dance program at Chautauqua Institution has been under the artistic direction of famed choreographer and former internationally known dancer Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux.
For 20 of those years, Bonnefoux has been assisted by another celebrated choreographer and former dancer: Mark Diamond.
I've known Bonnefoux since before he took over the Chautauqua program, having interviewed him when he performed in the Amphitheater as a guest artist from New York City Ballet. I first came to love dance even earlier, when I was 19 years old - the first time I watched Bonnefoux's wife perform at New York City's Lincoln Center. That would be the exquisite Patricia McBride, who also teaches at Chautauqua, having retired after a professional career lasting more than 30 years.
Dancers perform one of choreographer Mark Diamond’s most recent creations, “Bolero.”
It was the first time I knew that it was possible for a dancer to allow me to see music - not just a person moving to music, but music itself - and to experience it through my eyes, while I was experiencing it through my ears.
As a result, I've shared with readers a great deal of information about both. I thought it would be good to examine Diamond's participation in the company and to see what he has to say about working in our area.
Before I do so, it might be helpful if I explained some elements which may be confusing to readers who are not able to attend Chautauqua performances, night after night.
If you go to a dance performance at Chautauqua, you might see any of three dance companies. The experience becomes even more confusing because sometimes dancers from one company perform with one of the other companies.
Like theater, opera and the other principal arts programs at the institution, there are professional dancers specifically selected to perform there - the Chautauqua Dance Company- and there are talented students who cap weeks of study with the program's teachers with public performances - the Chautauqua Festival Dancers.
Finally, the North Carolina Dance Theatre from Charlotte spends a residency at Chautauqua and performs twice per season in the Amphitheater. I believe that residency has always been near the end of each season.
Bonnefoux, McBride and Diamond work with all three of these companies.
About Mark Diamond
Like virtually all choreographers, Diamond began as a dancer. He attended Pittsburgh's Duquesne University and Point Park College, performed with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and the city's Eastern European dance group, the Tamburitzans, and has performed as a soloist with the Hamburg (Germany) Ballet and as a principal dancer with the Milwaukee Ballet.
He has created dances for the Dayton Ballet, Milwaukee Ballet and National Slovak Ballet. In addition to his Chautauqua duties, Diamond is a choreographer and teacher for North Carolina Dance Theatre, where he directs the program for the younger company of developing dancers.
Throughout his two decades at Chautauqua, he has progressed from teacher to resident choreographer, to associate artistic director of the entire program.
On Wednesday of the past week, the North Carolina company performed an entire evening of 11 pas de deux by Diamond, which was the first time he has ever had that honor. Next Saturday, the company will perform an evening of dance innovations by a number of choreographers, including Diamond. I hope you'll be able to attend.
His own words
Chautauqua is a beautiful place and the choreographer looks forward to coming here each year, but it would be grossly incorrect to think he comes for a vacation.
''I came to Chautauqua for the first time to visit a friend of mine who was teaching here. He introduced me to Jean-Pierre and showed me the facilities, which were very good then and have become even better.
''I hit it off with Jean-Pierre, and he invited me to create one dance for the company. As the years have progressed, he has invited me to work with him more and more, and 12 years ago, he included me in the program at North Carolina, as well,'' he continued.
Four years ago, Diamond was promoted to associate artistic director. Has that meant a great deal more work? He responds, ''In truth, I'm mostly doing the same things I was doing before the promotion, but now I am much more aware of how very much the director has been doing, and in addition to my duties, I try to anticipate when he needs a hand with some element of his job.''
There was a time, some years back, when ballet was better known by the general public and the artform as a whole had a much stronger profile than it does today. Does he have a take on the reasons for that?
He says that in the 1960s and '70s, Americans were very much preoccupied with the Cold War. ''In many countries in the world, ballet is respected and loved by the average folk on the street. In our country, for whatever reason, that wasn't so. Then Rudolf Nureyev made headlines all around the world by defecting from the U.S.S.R. That made him famous. People who didn't care anything about dance loved the idea that the defection made us look good and the U.S.S.R. look bad.
''Once people were interested in seeing him and learning about him, they found that he was gifted at a style of dance which was big and bold and muscular. People who came to see the famous person found they liked the dance itself. Other Soviet dancers followed, including Natalia Makarova, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Alexander Godunov.
''They quickly took advantage of life in the West, to branch out into modern dance and to experiment in ways which made dance more interesting and exciting. At the same time, the U.S. was learning that culture was good for the economy and it made our country look more prestigious to other countries. Government support made it possible to start new companies, in cities all around the country,'' he said.
Beginning in the 1980s, the American government has cut back radically on the amount of support it has given to all of the arts and culture, including dance. The result has been many dance companies folding and fewer young people being exposed to the art form, and therefore fewer young dancers beginning to study.
Some companies have damaged themselves by stopping normal growth and limiting their performances to the safe and popular, thinking they hold more audiences that way.
Does Diamond have a prediction for the future of his artform? He says, ''In almost everything, it's normal for things to grow, and shrink, and grow again. In recent years, the reality shows on television which feature dance have won huge audiences. More and more young people want to dance, and once they get involved with dancing, many find they want to dance well, not just to show off. People who might not see dance, otherwise, are developing an interest and buying tickets to dance performances. Some of them might donate some money. We have a way to go before we can say we're in a renaissance, but it's coming. It's going to happen.''
And, how does the dance program at Chautauqua fit into his view of a coming renaissance of dance? He laughs, ''Chautauqua is misleading for young artists, because Chautauqua is what life ought to be like for them, not what it's really like, in most places. The living conditions are better than they might be able to afford on their own, and the faculty is better and the studios and other facilities are better, the costumes and stagings are better and the immediate interaction with orchestras and actors and singers are almost unequaled.''
Does Diamond see himself continuing to spend his summers on the shores of a small lake in Western New York? He replies that he has many times asked himself whether his love of Chautauqua will diminish. ''I keep wondering if I'll stay eager to give up my time off to work even harder than during the regular year,'' he said.
''But, I have experienced so much talent here, among both professional dancers and students. I have so much freedom to work and Jean-Pierre is so supportive of trying new things and finding new ways to do things better, I always have decided that it is most definitely worth the time and the work,'' he said.
One last question: When the choreographer decides to create a dance, how does he begin? He says different people work in different ways, and an individual who works in a particular way may be inspired to try something different.
''I usually start by hearing a piece of music which I like. I listen to it, over and over, and see if it suggests an idea, such as envy or anger, or perhaps a piece of literature. Does it seem to apply to a single person or a group of people? Women, or men, or both? And, it grows from there.''
Recently, he created a full-length ballet based on the play ''A Streetcar Named Desire'' by Tennessee Williams. He said he was inspired to do it by noting how different musical works can portray particular kinds of personality. ''The point of the play is what happens when there is interaction between a fragile, other-worldly person, Blanche Dubois, and a strong, harsh, seemingly unfeeling character, Stanley Kowalski.
''It isn't usually a good idea to mix different kinds of music in the same piece, but I have staged Blanche's movements to music by Chopin and Stanley's to harsher jazz and contemporary music. The clash of the musics mirrors the clash of the personalities,'' he said.
Diamond says that other dances have grown from watching dancers perform. Sometimes an individual will have a rare gift for leaps, perhaps, or turns or balance. That sets him searching for ways to display that rare gift, and perhaps to enlarge it.
You still have an opportunity to see this remarkable company of dancers, and the creations of Diamond. I hope you'll take advantage.