Leigh Donlan reports from Oakland:
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. –Dr. Martin Luther King, 1963
King’s words have resonated in different ways through the decades and across the country, but in Oakland, California, they are being revitalized through dance.
As part of Oakland Ballet’s spring season, A Capella–Our Bodies Sing, Graham Lustig’s Stone of Hope will make its West Coast premiere, an original work by the company’s artistic director whose score draws from Dr. King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.
The work was originally set on dancers in New Jersey, with whom Lustig discussed their encounters with discrimination. “There are racial issues in all backgrounds. One of our Korean dancers spoke of his experiences in America. The diversity of humans is wondrous and should be celebrated.”
Stone of Hope features renowned musician and producer Nona Brown and ten vocalists who will sing modern arrangements of spirituals, including “The Battle of Jericho.”
The human voice is celebrated in many of Lustig’s works, as it is throughout A Capella, with two additional premieres from Bay Area choreographers Val Caniparoli, Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton.
Caniparoli’s piece is inspired by the life of American songwriter Stephen Collins Foster who composed national favorites like “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Oh! Susanna.” In today’s music industry, Foster would be worth millions, but he died in 1864 at age 37 with 38 cents in his pocket because he had no copyrights to his music.
Garrett & Moulton will use the German spiritual songs of Hildegard of Bingen, an equally fascinating woman who, in addition to being a composer, was a Benedictine abbess, philosopher and Christian mystic, and is considered the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.
Importantly, this season’s performances extend to three Bay Area cities, including Hayward and San Francisco. It’s been 20 years since OBC performed in San Francisco, and the Brava Theater in the Mission District will host their return.
OBC’s performance expansion does pose some risk for the small company, which has risen more than once from the ashes of insolvency. From its founding in 1965 through the 1990’s, under the visionary leadership of Ronn Guidi, the company was widely celebrated for its revival of Diaghilev-era productions as well as its championing of American icons of dance and music. Lustig took the reins in 2010 after a particularly rocky period in the company’s finances. It is a much leaner company now, with seasons that still seem far too short, but its artistic vision remains adventurous and undimmed. It celebrated its 50th anniversary last season with a program of breathtaking scope that won it a special Isadora Duncan (“Izzie”) award this season.
Spreading its wings seems even more vital for this company than ever before, now that the Bay Area has lost one of its treasured ballet companies. After 30 years, Silicon Valley Ballet (previously known as Ballet San Jose) shuttered its doors abruptly in March, leaving 30 dancers without a home or severance pay. OBC is now home to SVB refugee Rudy Candia, a Cuban native who was one of SVB’s most powerful dancers. “I wish we could have taken more SVB dancers,” Lustig rued. “But since 2008, it has been hard for the company to live within its means. We had to rebuild our artistic profile and be responsible in financial matters. We don’t spend what we don’t have.”
Despite the company’s straitened circumstances, Oakland Ballet has continuously partnered with Oakland schools, to bring ballet to 5000 students annually. This community outreach is a signature element of the company’s footprint. “And we hope to expand our outreach further. It’s incredibly important that we continue to share our work,” Lustig says.
Oakland performances will be at the Malonga Casquelourd Theater and include a master class on April 16th where professional and advanced level dancers can join Lustig and OBC company members on stage for company class and learn repertoire from A Cappella, with a follow-up “Meet the Artists” discussion panel. Community members are invited to observe free of charge.
A Capella wraps up in Hayward at the Reed L. Buffington Visual and Performing Arts Center.
Oakland Ballet also sponsors the second annual East Bay DANCES Festival which takes place on Sunday April 17 at the Malonga Casquelourd Theater in Oakland and which will showcase an eclectic mix of East Bay dance companies. This year members of Oakland Ballet will be joined by AXIS Dance Company, Diablo Ballet, Jubilee American Dance Theater, Patty Chu’s Chinese Folk Dance, Savage Jazz Dance Company, and the Milissa Payne Project.
Lustig notes: “It’s amazing how much dance we have in the East Bay. This festival is our way of putting our arms around other artists.”
April 14-16 at the Malonga Casquelourd Theater, Oakland
April 21 at the Brava Theater, San Francisco
April 23 at the Reed L. Buffington Performing Arts Center, Hayward
April 17 at the Malonga Casquelourd Theater, Oakland