For the upwardly mobile choreographer Matthew Diamond, Euclid had it all wrong -- the shortest distance between two points isn't a straight line, but a zigzag. Diamond is just 32, but already he finds his creative path streaking from one medium to another like a bumper car on a spree.
His most recently completed opus is "A Night at the Ballet," which will be given its world premiere Wednesday night during the opening program of the Washington Ballet's fall series at Lisner Auditorium. Diamond has invaded the Washington scene twice previously -- once as a dancer, with the Louis Falco Dance Company in an appearance at the Kennedy Center some years ago; and once more recently as a choreographer, staging his "And . . ." for the Maryland Dance Theater. Wednesday's premiere, however, will mark the first time he's worked with a classical ballet company, and the first time he's choreographed for toe shoes. It's a sign of the polydexterity that characterizes both Diamond's generation of choreographers and his own recent course as an artist.
The Washington Ballet engagement comes amid an explosion in Diamond's career over the past year that has thrust him from his original modern dance orbit into directing and choreographing musicals; helping to mount the opening Olympic ceremonies; directing episodes of "The Guiding Light," one of daytime TV's best-known serials; and, starting this month, choreographing a Hollywood feature film, "Maxie," starring Glenn Close.
It's all not quite real yet to Diamond, who discussed his good fortune in Washington last month after putting finishing touches on "A Night at the Ballet." Only last year, he'd made the difficult decision to disband his own dance company, called Diamond, that he'd founded and led for four years.
"If you become an artist," he says, "you know you're going to deal a lot with being out of work. There've been times when I felt like I couldn't get arrested. Now all of a sudden I'm doing ballet and TV and everything in between. All this stuff has broken open at once. My lawyer calls and says, 'There's these MTV people want to talk to you,' and I think to myself, 'Take on yet another form?' I wonder if I've made a pact with the devil in my sleep or something."
He also worries whether he's going to have to pay up, somehow, for his luck -- Dorian Gray style. "I get this feeling there's a picture of me in the attic somewhere that doesn't look too good."
Diamond was born in New York City and grew up in the Queens suburb of Kew Gardens, where his father is in the grocery business. An older brother took tap lessons, as did he -- it was his first contact with dance. Then he majored in dance at the High School of Performing Arts, studying with such teachers as Gertrude Shurr and Norman Walker. Diamond started dancing professionally after graduation, and continued more or less regularly during his college career at the City College of New York, with a major in literature. Besides the Falco troupe, he performed with the Jose' Limo'n Company, and the troupes of Paul Sanasardo, Daniel Lewis and Jennifer Muller.
By 1975, he'd begun choreographing, as a free-lancer. He also did some teaching, and the following year something happened that was to presage the offbeat turns in his later career. Through Affiliate Artists, he was sent to Tuscaloosa to give lecture-demonstrations in schoolrooms, and a local arts administrator suggested that he help train football players. So Diamond found himself talking coach Bear Bryant's varsity squad at the University of Alabama through plie's and other dance exercises. "It turns out," Diamond says, "that the problems of a 200-pound football player and a 94-pound ballerina aren't all that different. They both are prone to the same kinds of injury, with knees and hamstrings; they're both concerned about weight, speed and constant fatigue."
As more people in the field became acquainted with his work, his choreographic activity grew from programs he mounted in New York to projects with such companies as Dance/LA, the Utah Repertory Dance Company and Israel's Batsheva troupe. In 1980 he organized the Diamond company, which made its official debut at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in 1980. By coincidence, the Washington Ballet had its first engagement at the Pillow that summer, sharing a bill with Diamond -- it was his meeting there with Washington Ballet director Mary Day that led, eventually, to the making of "A Night at the Ballet."
"We were virgins at the Pillow," Diamond says of his fledgling troupe, "but then we put on annual seasons in New York, twice we performed at Carnegie Hall with an orchestra, and we toured all over, the whole schmeer." For a variety of reasons, some of them financial but others having more to do with limitations on his choreographic scope -- having always to work with a small number of dancers, trained exclusively in modern dance, and never being able to afford live music -- Diamond gave up the company in 1983, a move he found "painful and devastating."
In his return to free-lancing, however, he discovered that this was both the mode he enjoyed the most and the one that offered him the kind of creative flexibility he particularly treasured. Opportunities began rapping at the door in staccato profusion. Last June, he was invited to direct and choreograph a couple of musicals and operettas -- "Peter Pan" and "The Pirates of Penzance" -- at a summer theater in Maine. Then came the Olympics -- Broadway choreographer Ron Field ("Cabaret") engaged Diamond as assistant choreographer for the event's lavish opening ceremonies.
"We had 3,500 dancers," Diamond recalls exultantly. "It was incredible -- 300 joggers, 100 old folks, 100 kids, 75 gymnasts, 1,000 drill team performers and 84 grand pianos coming in on cue. You really knew you were in the land of the surreal."
Next up was daytime television, and "The Guiding Light." Through an introduction to the show's producer, Diamond began an apprenticeship by watching the director and actors at work 16 hours a day. Finally, after several months, he was given the chance to direct a scene, and it went so well he's now getting continuing directorial assignments with the program. Not long after, he was signed to do the choreography for the Glenn Close movie that starts production this month.
Last month, he spent two weeks in Washington creating "A Night at the Ballet," a 20-minute comic ballet for four couples set to music by Emmanuel Chabrier. "It was a composer friend of mine, Donald York," musical director of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Diamond says, "who put me onto Chabrier for the ballet. I went to the library and listened to all the Chabrier I could get my hands on until I had a cauliflower ear, but it finally clicked. Following the musical drift, there are some motifs in the movement design that are Spanish, but it's very much in quotation marks, tongue-in-cheek. The title of the ballet is meant to allude to things that can go wrong on stage in the course of a performance -- the nodding reference to the Marx Brothers "A Night at the Opera" is intentional, of course. The time I spent with the Washington Ballet making this piece turned out to be two of the craziest and most wonderful weeks of my life."
The movies have provided inspiration for earlier Diamond choreography. His "Silent Film," originally done for the Utah Repertory Dance Theatre, used imagery from the old Fatty Arbuckle, Mack Sennett and Keystone Kops routines. "Thriller," choreographed for his own troupe, was like a prototypical film noir, complete with a surprise stabbing as a finale.
The shuttling among the media has turned out to be right up Diamond's alley. "It's endlessly fascinating to me to go from one to the other," he says. "It seems to force new thoughts. The opportunity to compare the media is extremely helpful. From directing soap opera, for instance, I learned so much about how to tell a story in ballet. As far as where all this is leading -- boy, you got me. I know there are times when I want to be very serious and make serious work, and also times when I just want to give an audience a good time. I'm comfortable with both, and I'm glad to be mastering the crafts to enable me to do both."
"Someday," Diamond says reflectively, "I'd like to see all these forms, all these media, come together in some comprehensive way." And then he adds, in lingo that marks him indelibly as a child of his time, "I guess maybe 'director-choreographer' is becoming the operative term."