Major-league ballet

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday May 24, 2011
Share this Post:

Ballet companies are like baseball teams. Sometimes the magic is working: they never drop the ball, they score in the clutch, the higher the stakes the cooler their nerve, and they win the pennant. Crowds grow every week, everybody identifies with them. The next year, the magic fragments. The sluggers lose their swing, the shortstop drops the ball, the pitchers throw wild, they hit the cellar – and the fans hang in there.

Every great ballet company goes up and down. The Bolshoi is riding high, but the other great Russian company, the Kirov, has been kinda calcified for a decade. New York City Ballet is revitalized, but ABT is dangerously glitzy.

These thoughts spring to mind because two once-world-class companies perform within weeks of each other. The scrappy but great-hearted Oakland Ballet made itself world-famous in the 80s, has drooped since, but still could make their comeback. And the Royal Danish Ballet, the exemplar of Romantic-era ballet, is bringing its complete troupe to Berkeley, courtesy of Cal Performances, for the first time ever. The RDB peaked in the 50s and again in the 80s, when it was one of the five great ballet companies in the world, but has shakily managed since. They arrive under a brilliant new director, Nikolai Hubbe, with glowing notices. What will they look like now?

Oakland Ballet danced the most trenchant anti-war statement ever made, The Green Table. Death bestrode the stage like a colossus and picked off everybody we've come to care about. Hatred, violence, and murder within families? In Agnes de Mille's Fall River Legend, Oakland Ballet performed as if they'd had been directed by Elia Kazan. The entombment of women in traditional marriage? Les Noces, Lilac Garden, The Awakening. Scapegoating? Lynchtown. Bright lights, big city, crushing loneliness? Anna Sokolow's Rooms.

Nearly every show, there was some visionary revelation that took what everybody was thinking about and made the conflicts clear. Billy the Kid, what it's like to be a sexy outlaw, spoke to my whole generation of queers. Immortal love across class lines? Oakland Ballet's Giselle broke your heart.  San Francisco Ballet's Giselle has only this past year reached the levels of profundity that Oakland had plumbed in the 80s.

I wish I could say that opening night of the Oakland Ballet's experimental new-works show was superb. Unfortunately, it was a comedy of errors, a very rough, under-rehearsed  presentation of very difficult material. In the third piece (by Mills College Dance Dept. Chair Sonya Delwayde, a fine choreographer), the brilliant dancer Brandon Freeman found his footing, owned his role, and turned things around. By the end, in new director Graham Lustig's jazzy Vista (to music by the Lounge Lizards), everyone was dancing great: Sarah Bukowski, Jamielynn Duggan, Emily Kerr, Amber Merrick, Stephanie Salts, Rachel Speidel Little, and Sharon Wehner, and the wonderfully sexy men, Joseph Copley, Freeman, Ikolo Griffin, and Connolly Strombeck.

It was a mixed bill. The opening piece, by the bold SF choreographer Amy Seiwert, I'd like to see again under better conditions. The dancers were still getting their signals straight. Seiwert set her very angular dance to Mason Bates' suite The Life of Birds. This ballet will never be easy. Still, there were glorious passages in the duet for Bukowski and Copley that could be wholly ravishing after they've made it their own. She is beautiful, and Copley is a devoted partner. It's dubious that Lustig's wordswithinwords can be realized by mere mortals – the dancers have to recite Robert Duncan's poignant poetry while dancing, and no dancer I know (except Joe Goode) has the elocutionary powers to do those lines justice while performing Lustig's gut-wrenchingly difficult movement-phrases.

Coming up next week, we have the Royal Danish Ballet performing one of the few truly perfect ballets ever created, Auguste Bournonville's La Sylphide, which uses all the artifice of  the theater to make you believe you've seen a fairy floating on a breeze and darting into the heart of an imaginative farm-boy, making him unable to be satisfied with common bourgeois life.

La Sylphide is the ancestor of every play or movie (Ghosts, Harvey ) in which only a few characters can see a character the whole audience can see. The Sylphide disappears up a chimney at one point, and invades a wedding party where everyone is dancing, and steals the groom from under the bride-to-be's nose. Big magic: especially since the two lovers have an impetuous way of moving that separates them from everyone else on-stage, who are all slightly heavy, and dance a little behind the beat.

The second mixed bill shows off their superb technique, which still sets a standard for the rest of the world.