With vision, hard work and business savvy,
Lauren Jonas has built the Diablo Ballet
into a cultural gem
~ By Karen D’Souza; photos by Jose Carlos Fajardo.
When Lauren Jonas was 9 years old, she longed to pirouette. All the girls in ballet class were nervous about it. Not her. Scampering around the living room carpet in her socks, she threw herself into the spin. She nailed it. Seven times.
“She just went for it,” recalls her younger sister Corinne. “She has always been fearless, leaping into the unknown and loving every minute. She never worries about falling down.”
That fearlessness and complete dedication to her craft are still what drive Jonas.
The woman physically embodies the archetype of the ethereal ballerina, with delicate bones, a lithe bearing and megawatt smile. But as founder and artistic director of Walnut Creek’s Diablo Ballet, she has led her company to critical acclaim and honed a formidable business sense and steel backbone from running it through tough times.
Now in its 18th season, Diablo Ballet has become known for showcasing new works by contemporary choreographers as well as for its interpretations of the classics, performed by an elite corps of nine dancers. Jonas, 46, runs the company on shoestrings, gusto and pluck.
A big part of her vision is to demystify dance for the masses.
“People think of dance as a luxury,” she says. “But for me, it is a way to connect with people, a way to make a difference in their lives.”
Jonas may not dance anymore, but she still has to keep on her toes from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, managing everything from practices and performances to fundraising and administrative details. With multiple regional ballet companies vying for the East Bay and Bay Area audience, Jonas has to be agile and innovative. Her staff is small, her budgets are low and her talented dancers teach in their off-hours just to get by.
“It really is all-consuming. Life/work balance – what is that?” she says, only half joking. “It’s always hard running a ballet, but in this economy, it’s almost impossible. You have to give it everything you’ve got.”
Artistic director Jonas oversees a recent Diablo Ballet practice session.
Jonas cuts a striking figure about town, one recent morning clad in a chic black dress with spiky boots and a gold necklace. She walks fast, laughs easily and radiates a genuine enthusiasm for her work. She admits that she had no idea what she was getting into when she co-founded the company back in 1993. She took the plunge, she says, because she believed Contra Costa County was a community hungry for dance. It has been a far more challenging journey than she anticipated.
It was “the biggest turning point of my life,” says the soft-spoken Jonas, chatting over coffee at a downtown Walnut Creek cafe. “What I have learned has been a master’s degree in running a business.”
Twice over the years, Diablo Ballet has almost closed its doors, but Jonas has always found a way to cut corners and forge ahead. The budget is now a lean annual $555,500, down from a high of $850,000 in 2000. To save money, the company shares its executive director and marketing director with the Peninsula’s Hillbarn Theatre. It makes do with a tiny, donated office. On the other hand, there are trims she won’t make, such as her dancers’ health insurance. It’s a tricky balancing act to watch the pennies but maintain the standards.
That’s precisely why fans of the company hail it as a gem in the region’s cultural scene.
“They are worth their weight in gold,” says Val Caniparoli, noted choreographer and former principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet; Caniparoli worked with the company on a world premiere of his “Tears From Above” in the inaugural program this season. “Even in hard times, they do interesting pieces, and they do them with integrity and style. They challenge themselves and the audience by doing eclectic work.”
In addition to fulfilling her artistic mission, Jonas is serious about engaging community and making dance accessible, from lowering ticket prices to launching a new initiative that lets patrons live tweet at certain performances. And with the company’s PEEK program (Performing Arts Education & Enrichment for Kids), she often ventures into local classrooms to bring the magic of movement — both performance and classes — to underserved children in Contra Costa County schools.
“That’s what makes us special. We don’t just perform. We do so much more than that,” Jonas says. “Giving children a way to express themselves is absolutely vital.” She almost tears up remembering an autistic boy who blossomed under her tutelage as part of PEEK.
Not much pushes her buttons. But it does annoy her that Diablo Ballet has such a low profile in its hometown.
“We are much better known nationally than we are in our own backyard,” she says.
Jonas watches as Robert Dekkers raises Mayo Sugano during rehearsal. The troupe next performs May 4-5 in Walnut Creek.
She and her sister Corinne first fell for dance watching their older sister Mindy perform. “My poor parents — three girls, and we all became dancers!” she recalls.
The family lived in Terra Linda in Marin County, and Marin Ballet was a second home for Jonas. By age 6, she was limbering up at the barre every day. By 14, she decided to become a ballerina. She never had any doubts.
“It’s what I love most,” she says. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who work at jobs they don’t love. I feel so lucky.”
She got her first dancing gig straight out of high school at 17 and pirouetted her way from the Milwaukee Ballet and the Southwest Ballet to the Moscow Ballet. She favored small troupes over big companies because she prefers intimacy. But all that really mattered was the chance to dance.
“People don’t know how much discipline it takes to be a dancer,” she says. “It takes total focus. It doesn’t matter if you’re sad or stressed or whatever, when you step onstage, nothing matters but the dance.”
Toward the end of her career, she was dancing on knees that were ripped to shreds, coping with chronic pain and willing herself to go on.
“My goal was to retire without having surgery, and I did it, just barely.”
She’s still a workaholic who rarely takes a day off.
“That ballet is her baby,” says Corinne, who danced with Diablo Ballet for several years. “There’s nothing she wouldn’t do for it.”
As artistic director, Jonas says her leadership style is collaborative but decisive. “I prefer to run the ballet with quiet confidence. I will never please everyone and that’s fine, but I will feel good knowing that I’ve considered people’s feelings and I have made a decision that works best for the ballet.”
She denies being a perfectionist, but she does worry that things will fall apart if she’s not there. She wants the company to put its best foot forward at all times. “I have a certain standard that I believe Diablo Ballet should maintain,” she says. “I want everything to look classy, never sloppy.”
Even offstage, friends say she has an eye for the little things. She never forgets a name or a birthday. She’s a details junkie who remembers everything, but she’s modest almost to a fault. If she has to pull an all-nighter to finish a grant application, she does it without complaint.
When company stalwart Edward Stegge was brutally mugged in Concord in 2009, Jonas visited him every day, helped him take care of paperwork and then assisted him with rehab.
“Some people become artistic directors because they want power. Not Lauren,” says her bosom chum Joanna Berman, a former San Francisco Ballet star who has known Jonas since they were little girls taking lessons at the Marin Ballet. “This is a labor of love for her. She will do whatever it takes. And she’ll do it with grace.”
When Jonas needs to unwind, she shops. She’s a fashionista, and her current favorite thing in her wardrobe is a pair of brown Tahari boots. When she and Corinne can get away, they like to hit the Napa outlets.
“She has a shoe fetish, for sure,” Corinne says. “I feel lucky to get her hand-me-downs.”
Though she stopped dancing four years ago, Jonas is a hawk about what she eats and maintains a ballerina’s figure. “I get cranky if I can’t fit into my clothes,” she admits.
To stay nimble, she sticks to a diet that’s heavy on greens and protein. She’s particularly fond of tossing together a salad with grilled chicken, olives, smoked salmon, almonds and avocado. She goes for a run or works out at the gym almost every day. “It keeps me energized and it helps work out the stress.”
On her to-do list if only she had the time? She would learn Spanish and travel to Italy.
Jonas has been in love with the ballet for so long that she never had time for rites of passage such as going to college or having kids. She has no regrets about any of that.
“I don’t think I could manage this job if I had children,” she notes wryly.
Certainly, she has all the family she needs. Both of her sisters live nearby, and Berman remains her BFF.
“She is such a generous and loyal soul,” Berman says. “She is the kind of person you are lucky to have in your corner.”
To be sure, Jonas is no diva. Her idea of a guilty pleasure is ending the day with a bath and a small glass of wine. If she really wants to splurge, she heads for the spa. Relaxation is nirvana for her. “If I get to go to bed early,” she says, “I have a smile on my face.”
She’ll need her composure — and even more energy — going forward. Diablo Ballet is planning on launching an endowment campaign to give it a buffer zone in hard times. Jonas is also proud to note that the subscriber base has grown 30 percent since 2009. That kind of popularity is what gives the troupe its staying power.
“So many of the dance companies that were out there when we began are now gone,” she says. “Just being here is a real victory.”