Ballet to the People gatecrashed a lecture-demonstration by dancers from the Oakland Ballet Company at Burckhalter Elementary School on Thursday morning, surrounded by an enthusiastic, engaging and well-mannered crowd of third graders. As Sharon Kung, Megan Terry, Greg DeSantis, and Vincent Chavez gave a capsule history of ballet, and performed excerpts from The Nutcracker, the kids sat, rapt, occasionally exclaiming in awe at the jumps and turns and dramatic overhead lifts.
Even in the tight quarters of the classroom, the lucidity and grace of Graham Lustig’s choreography shone. Terry and DeSantis as Marie and her Nutcracker Prince were particularly affecting in the Snow scene pas de deux. The small but spunky Sharon Kung showed off her knife-like jumps in swirling Russian robes, and Vincent Chavez, dashing in his Spanish costume, drew whoa’s from the crowd with his speedy footwork and grandes pirouettes.
“Does anyone know who wrote the music for The Nutcracker?” Greg DeSantis challenged the wide-eyed audience.
A few hands shot up.
“The President!” one nine-year-old boy declared confidently.
Kaiser Permanente and the Matson Foundation support Oakland Ballet’s outreach into the local schools. Nevertheless, Oakland Ballet has not been immune to the economic tempests that have buffeted a city most recently rocked by the fallout from the contentious Occupy Oakland movement, and whose long history is marked by great social and political upheaval. Oakland Ballet’s own distinguished history traces back to Diaghilev’s pioneering Ballets Russes, and as it approaches its 50th anniversary in 2015, it has, hopefully, put its rockiest years behind it.
This year, the company has the resources to present a Spring season of contemporary work, plus three performances of The Nutcracker at the legendary Paramount Theatre – possibly the grandest venue in the entire Bay Area for the performing arts, a veritable Art Deco “palace to art.”
Interestingly, British-born Lustig grew up never having seen a Nutcracker. (Christmas pantomime and ballets like Frederick Ashton’s Les Patineurs and Cinderella were the more popular holiday fare.) Free from the spell of historic productions, Lustig went back to his Viennese roots for design inspiration: the paintings of Gustav Klimt, and the silver birches in the Snow scene, rather than the archetypal pine trees peppered with snow. The constraints of a small company dictated, for example, that he could only field eight snow maidens instead of the traditional army, so he peopled the Snow scene with young students costumed as snowballs. Beauty and humor go hand in hand as a multitude of roly-poly, rosy-cheeked children tumble around the stage at the feet of the glamorous, ethereal snow maidens.
For Lustig and Oakland Ballet, it is this tying together of the local community in one glorious spectacle – professional dancers and young, aspiring amateurs, partnered with the Oakland East Bay Symphony, under the inspired direction of Michael Morgan, and local choruses – that is the true magic of Nutcracker.
Catch the Oakland Ballet Company with the Oakland East Bay Symphony in The Nutcracker at the historic Paramount Theatre on December 21st and 22nd at 2:00 p.m. and December 24th at 11:00 a.m.
More details about Graham Lustig’s Nutcracker, Oakland Ballet and its work in the local community in our piece in the Huffington Post.