Oakland Ballet's 50th, SF Ballet School demos
by Paul Parish
Does Oakland need a ballet company, or San Francisco a ballet school? "O, reason not the need," as King Lear said to his maddening daughter. "If to go warm were gorgeous, thou needst not what thou gorgeous wearest, which scarcely keeps thee warm." But if Oakland wants a ballet company – and it certainly did look that way last Saturday afternoon, at the Oakland Ballet Company's 50th reunion, which had the Paramount Theater close to full and vibed to the hilt on nostalgia and civic pride – chances are looking better that they could make the comeback after the Loma Prieta earthquake laid them low. And across the Bay, the students of the San Francisco Ballet School looked very impressive indeed in their annual graduation exercises.
It's been 20 years since the Oakland Ballet was a force to be reckoned with, but in the 1980s and 90s, their performances of neglected great ballets made international headlines. They gave riveting performances of ballets that the companies that had originated them could no longer perform with conviction. Critics in New York and London staggered out of the theater to say Oakland Ballet had just given them a life-altering experience. Their show Saturday came in two parts. First, a parade of excerpts, mostly solos, from the ballets that made them famous; and second, a string of mostly new, larger works that showed their power to entertain.
What made them famous – astonishing, really, for a regional company with a budget their founding director Ronn Guidi laughingly called "the size of SF Ballet's deficit" – was their power at evoking myth: making folk legends appear before your eyes solid as statues, moving like life. They used ballet technique for the distancing effect, then once you'd accepted the strangeness, put human emotions back in front of you: Petrouschka's unbearable loneliness, Billy the Kid's terrible isolation, the nightmare of being forced into marriage, the afternoon of a faun, the romance of an Arabian night. There was always a lack of consistency, some dancers who were flat-footed or thick in the waist, who could partner the ballerina but had no power to charm when it came time for their solos. You'd notice it, but suddenly some dancer would hurry away your soul, and you'd forget about it. In a city that's still got a working port, actual factories, a downtown without a major department store, schools with a high murder rate, romance is more necessary than for most places, and it's always got some holes in its socks.
Oakland Ballet was always a "character" company, scraped up from the leavings of San Francisco Ballet. Although a few of the dancers had first-rate classical technique, most did not. But all had flair, rhythm, imagination, raw dance power, and they could put across the "moving-picture" ballets that Serge Diaghilev had commissioned for the Ballets Russes in the early 20th century.
Saturday's event was still a holey affair: some of these dancers aren't good enough. They are not really a company. They need months of rehearsal and two classes a day from teachers cleaning up their technique. Right now, all they can afford is to pick up dancers who are available and fit the city's diversity requirements, with the help of Mills College for rehearsal space. If the city is going to stand up, they need to fund their housing and training. In the first half, only Evan Flood and Gabriel Williams brought real imaginative life to their solos, Petrouchka and Billy the Kid. The first-act finale, Afternoon of a Faun, saved the day. Matthew Roberts and Emily Kerr were fascinating in Nijinsky's Art Deco choreography, which made it seem as though that era had come back to life. It was the only selection that had its full staging, complete with the famous rock-face backdrop. Suddenly my imagination was drunk on all that glamour. That's what it was all about.
The second half opened brilliantly with clean, joyous dancing for two couples (Daphne Lee, Lydia McRae, Taurean Green, Sean Omandam) backing up the sparkling Alysia Chang in flashing steps that fit Vivaldi's bright music perfectly. It ended with equal brio in Val Caniparoli's hilarious setting of Papa Mozart's Toy Symphony re-done with new toys. Das Ballett featured six dancers (Alysia Chang, Daphne Lee, Sharon Wehner, Tyler Rhoades, Matther Roberts, Sean Omandam) and was more engaging than anything he's made for SFB since Narcisse. Other standouts were Robert Moses' delicate, moving adagio Untitled (set to one of Satie's Gnossiennes, played by Roy Bogas) and Michael Lowe's Horse Head Strings, which gave a rich, strange role to Evan Flood.
Meanwhile, San Francisco Ballet's Trainees, the highest rank at SFB's School, danced with distinction in James Sofranko's beautiful new ballet set to Mozart's Paris Symphony. The choreography is fantastically well-made: difficult, precise, generous, and perfectly scaled to Mozart's phrases, many of them with feminine endings, so that the last small movement completes the picture just in time. This requires flair, musicality, and delight in the impulse to move, all of which were wonderfully present in all the dancers, but especially in Anastasia Kubanda (with Daniel Domenech) and Natasha Sheehan (with Hadriel Diniz), who danced together with a fantastic connection.
The whole show was anticlimactic, ending with a dull ballet by Kenneth Macmillan that needs more chic than these dancers have. But it began with a splendid grand defile for the whole show from the smallest children to the top ranks, assembled with great craft to demonstrate their skills, presence, and charm by their teacher Parrish Maynard. Chisaaka Oga and Haruo Niyama showed blazing technique in the Soviet display piece The Flames of Paris: it's wonderful to see youth and mastery so powerfully united in one place. Those kids are contenders! And SFB Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson's excellent Bartok Divertimento, staged by Tina Le Blanc, showed Ms. Kubanda and Messrs. Diniz, Occhipinti, and Domenach again to fantastic effect.