WALNUT CREEK -- When it comes to audience engagement, Diablo Ballet knows how to buck tradition.
Last year, the Walnut Creek-based dance company created a minor stir when, instead of insisting on rapt, distraction-free attention expected from ballet audiences, it invited writers and bloggers to whip out their smartphones and discreetly live-tweet during a performance.
This year, the tech-happy troupe is breaking down more barriers between dancers and audience while taking its embrace of all things YouTube, Twitter and Facebook a step further by staging what it says is the first ballet crowdsourced by social media.
Using seven ideas for setting, mood and subject matter gleaned from among 132 suggestions by social media users from around the world, rising choreographer and Diablo Ballet dancer Robert Dekkers is crafting "The Flight of the Dodo," a 10-minute tribute to the extinct bird set to a Vivaldi concerto. Rehearsal videos are up on the company's YouTube channel, where the finished dance will be broadcast after March 1.
Although the world premiere isn't until Friday and Saturday in Walnut Creek -- it repeats April 12 and 13 in Foster City -- the piece has already caught the ballet world's attention. International dance publications are buzzing about the work, and a pair of students at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm have made it the subject of a thesis exploring media technology in the dance world.
The idea for the Web ballet came from marketing director Dan Meagher. Drawing inspiration from the company's annual Theatre Encounter program in which artistic director Lauren Jonas and dancers collaborate with schoolchildren on a short piece, Meagher pitched the idea of using technology to create a ballet from scratch.
"It dawned on me that creating dance is a collaborative process," Meagher said, "so why not collaborate on creating a new dance work with the world?"
Jonas immediately tapped Dekkers, a 28-year-old Atlanta native known for creating cutting-edge, multidisciplinary works with his own San Francisco-based company Post:Ballet, to take the reins. Dekkers chose three pieces of music for the potential piece, which in early January were posted on YouTube, and the public was asked to help choose the score. The seven ideas chosen were announced on Twitter on Feb. 19; an eighth idea submitted by a young dance student was also selected.
But it was the idea tweeted by Jonathan Mangosing, a Smuin Ballet dancer familiar with Dekkers' work, that became the work's central subject. In an email, Mangosing noted that the choreographer's pieces -- in which dancers tend to carry each other, perform minimal jumps and slide -- generally "embody forms of birds and beaks."
It would be a natural progression, he pointed out, to put a narrative of a flightless bird "that doesn't exist in the modern world" into one of Dekkers' ballets. "There are themes of evolution, survival and man's obsession/jealousy of flying animals," Mangosing wrote.
Those themes joined suggestions from other social media users.
All making their way into Dekkers' work: twisted, gender-bending dance steps, a deliberately ironic feel, movements both beautiful and "hideously ugly" and an insane asylum setting. Unlike the choreographer's other slow-crafted efforts, this ballet is coming together quickly. The first rehearsal was Feb. 18, leaving Dekkers and the dancers less than two weeks to finish and fine-tune the group creation.
The choreographer himself will dance in the second movement, an adagio in which a frightened, captured dodo -- the birds will be portrayed by the company's male dancers -- is examined by two of the four "explorers," roles that will be danced by women.
"It just kept sticking out to me," Dekkers said about the bird, which went extinct in the late 1600s. Admitting he probably would never have made a ballet about the dodo if not for this project, Dekkers said he sees the bird as a symbol for rapid consumption and technology.
"It really ended up being something I was passionate about and it related to my own life and experiences and community," he said.
And while he doesn't know whether the work will be a success, Dekkers said what matters is getting an opportunity to take a chance and try something new.
"That in-between moment, taking those disparate ideas and weaving them together -- that's what pushes me creatively," he said, "and makes me grow as an artist."
What: "Inside the Dancer's Studio" performance featuring "Flight of the Dodo"; Trey McIntyre's "The Blue Boy"; Sean Kelly's "Sinuosity"; and "La Covacha" by David Fonnegra
Where: Shadelands Arts Center, 111 N. Wiget Lane, Walnut Creek
When: 8 p.m. March 1; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. March 2
The program repeats: At 8 p.m. April 12-13 at the Hillbarn Theatre, Foster City
Cost: $19 to $39. Contact: 925-943-1775, www.diabloballet.org