A Classy 50th Birthday Bash for Oakland Ballet

This season marked a major milestone in the history of two storied American ballet companies on opposite coasts: American Ballet Theatre turned 75, and Oakland Ballet turned 50.

(l to r) The Three Athletes: Joral Schmalle, Ron Thiele, and Don Schwennesen with Oakland Ballet Company dancers in Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Biches, restaging by Irena Nijinska.
Photo: John Markowski
(1990)

(l to r) The Three Athletes: Joral Schmalle, Ron Thiele, and Don Schwennesen with Oakland Ballet Company dancers in Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Biches, in a restaging by Irena Nijinska.
 Photo: John Markowski
(1990)

For Oakland Ballet’s gala program, Graham Lustig – at the helm of the company since 2010 – chose to present glimpses of glorious Diaghilev revivals originally mounted by company founder Ronn Guidi.  These included Vaslav Nijinsky’s groundbreaking, erotic L’Après-midi d’un Faune, complete with the décor from Ann Hutchinson Guest’s 1995 restoration.

The salute to Oakland Ballet’s past was rounded out by excerpts from Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid, Alonzo King’s Love Dogs, and Ronn Guidi’s The Secret Garden, and by the full-length Green by Carlos Carvajal.

Ethan White in Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un Faune, restaging by Ronn Guidi. Photo: Marty Sohl
(2007)

Ethan White in Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un Faune, in a restaging by Ronn Guidi. Photo: Marty Sohl
 (2007)

Lustig thinks big. Not simply content with honoring tradition, he says “we must step away from it, too,” and roped in five choreographers to make new dances for the gala. In addition to Lustig’s world première to music by minimalist Max Richter, Val Caniparoli, Betsy Erickson, Michael Lowe, Robert Moses and Amy Seiwert – a formidable brigade of Left Coast dancemakers – each crafted a toast to the 50th anniversary of this historic company.

Emily Kerr and Taurean Green in rehearsal for new work by Betsy Erickson. Photo: David DeSilva)

Emily Kerr and Taurean Green in rehearsal for new work by Betsy Erickson. Photo: David DeSilva

Just as Oakland has weathered grave economic and socio-political storms, the viability of its ballet company has been threatened several times in recent decades. Lustig is a pragmatist when it comes to fiscal management. The magic that made this gala come together is not magic at all: it’s the generous collaboration of dozens of former Oakland Ballet alumni – coming in to coach the present crop of dancers in the revivals; lending a hand with designs – and the goodwill of many organizations including Oakland’s Paramount Theater (the magnificent Art Deco home to many of the company’s past seasons), the Oakland mayor’s office, the unions. Lustig’s dreams of restoring the company to its former luster, augmenting the company’s imaginative and profitable Nutcracker with a full spring and fall season, will require significant public and private commitment from a city that seems perennially strapped and preoccupied with other issues.

This is a problem hardly unique to Oakland. Farther south, in the more affluent Silicon Valley environs, Ballet San Jose recently issued an emergency appeal for half a million dollars, and will require another $3.5 million by October to stay afloat. Those with deep pockets who are looking to make an impact with their philanthropy may not see ballet as sufficiently cutting-edge, hip or relevant. But Lustig’s impeccable programming taste and vision may change their minds.

The day after the gala performance at the Paramount, the company took the party to Laney College, where it performed its newest works alongside an array of local dance companies. These included the imaginative AXIS Dance, which unites dancers with and without physical disabilities, Walnut Creek’s spunky Diablo Ballet, The Milissa Payne Project, street dance crew Turffeinz, and Tessera Tribal Belly Dance.

Of the imaginative contemporary arrangement of Leopold Mozart’s Toy Symphony that Val Caniparoli used in his latest work, Gidon Kremer called it an attempt “to set Mozart in the frame of our time.”

With this gala, Graham Lustig does exactly that for classical ballet.

Click here for our peek into rehearsals for Oakland Ballet’s 50th anniversary program, published earlier in the Huffington Post, along with more fabulous photos.

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