writers on dancing


Telling Tales
Oakland Ballet
Calvin Simmons Theater
Oakland, California
November 28, 2005

by Rita Felciano
copyright ©2005 by Rita Felciano

Oakland Ballet’s rebirth in October, at the age of forty, presented a company invigorated by a fresh crop of dancers in a program that embraced both the company’s history (Eugene Loring, Bronislava Nijinska) and a stab at things to come (Michael Lowe, Donald McKayle). More than anything, Artistic Director Karen Brown appears determined to reach out to new audiences, to make going to the ballet an inviting affair for a much broader cross section of people than has traditionally been the case.

With Scott Rink’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, Ronn Guidi’s “Peter and the Wolf” and “A Short Solo,” one of Dudley Brooks’ puppet ballets, the second program’s moniker as designed for the “whole family” rang true. Thankfully, none of the works were “kiddy-friendly,” in the sense of being dumbed down. They offered, instead, well chosen examples of story-telling in ballet on a more modest scale than the big full-length ones audiences seem to crave.

Rink’s and Guidi’s different approaches to their tasks were illustrative. Rink revamped his score for a sexy sci-fi version of hubris; Guidi honed close to the original for a gentle fairy tale.

For “Sorcerers’” composer Scott Marshall sent Paul Dukas’ popular composition through an electronic wringer, scrubbing it clean of its quaintness and integrating the rest into a filmic sound collage—with women’s voice and growling monsters—more dramatic but also more sinister than the original sound poem.

Disney’s Mickey Mouse apprentice notwithstanding, Goethe’s poem is a parable about man setting forces in motion that slip out of his control. In his humanistic thinking, the genie can be put back into the box, Rink doesn’t believe so. His apprentice turns into and is defeated by the monster that he has created. Not exactly a child’s play.

Rink’s approach to dance is theatrical and imagistic. That aspect of “Sorcerers” works well. His sorcerer is a huge bat-like creature—danced simultaneously by Paunika Jones, Joseph Copley and Matthew—who metamorphoses in size, sails across the air and dive-bombs like some preternatural nightmare. C. Andrew Tippin’s billowing stage fog, and Tracy Christensen’ gigantic cape, wonderfully spooky and threatening, dance almost on their own.

The Broom, which multiplies, also is good theatrical invention. With high cut tights that reveal more than they cover,  stilt-like arm extensions, this creature’s spidery limbs seduce and confuse. Jennifer Tierney, eventually assisted by five sister brooms, danced the wooden stick turning on its maker. 

Though effective in its imagistic approach, “Sorcerer’s” ability to convey the narrative compellingly is severely impacted by Rink’s limited movement invention. Granted that the design restricted the brooms’ expressive abilities, but the choreography quickly became repetitive. It was most affective in subverting the body’s sense of vertical alignment. But maybe “Sorcerers” biggest shortcoming was due to the choreography for the Apprentice. Gabriel Williams is an intensely likeable dancer with a lovely elevation and excellent turns. His choreography was too generic; he needed more character-appropriate moves.

Oakland Ballet founder Guidi may be best known for his presentations of Diaghilev era and Americana ballets. But he also is a superb story teller. His “Peter and the Wolf,” (1990), with the score on tape though with a live sonorous narration by actor Hawthorne James, was pure delight. Margo Humphrey’s expressionistically colored landscape set a solid contrast with the grandfather’s almost Klee-like farm house. Touched by Russian folklore, the costumes, with the exception of the grandfather’s, worked well.

Williams returned as Peter, a joyous, mischievous little boy, struggling against his grandfather’s impositions but bravely standing up to the cat’s (Carlos Ventura) appetite. Adults portraying children can be  problematic on stage. Williams convincingly appealed to the kid in all of us.

“Peter’s” real story teller is Prokofiev’s brilliantly orchestrated score, and the way its purely instrumental passages play off against the sometimes laconic narration. Adding choreography is tempting but also problematic since it risks flattening Prokofiev’s intentions. Guidi, however, found enough space inside the music to fill it with simple but telling choreography, often enriching the stage with simultaneous actions that recalled ballet’s Russian heritage.

 Mostly the choreographer followed the text closely, adding concrete movement details. The primadonna duck (Ilana Goldman) waddled, shook her behind and splashed from her pool. The bird (Cynthia Shepherd) fluttered, soared and flirted with the boy. The tug of war looked as if Prokofiev had written the music after the fact. The silken smooth but wily cat—a forest cousin to the one in “Sleeping Beauty”—stayed close, but “not too close” to the bird while hiding in the tree. Peter’s jumping across the wall had an anxious audience. The bird flirtatiously distracted the plodding wolf (Matthew Linzer), and Peter properly raised him by his tail. The identical looking hunters (Kevin Jackson, Harriet McMeekin and Yuka Omori) looked and danced like a mix between country bumpkins and the leaping Three Ivans. The final celebration—a minuet like couple dance for everyone—had an almost court-like  elegance to it.

Guidi made one change for the tender hearted. In the original the wolf swallowed the duck whole, and she is heard rattling around his stomach. Guidi, maybe remembering Little Red Riding Hood had the hunters shake her out of his stomach. The audience—smiling faces all around—approved.

The program opened with a charmer. Brooks has made something of a specialty with puppet ballets in which two performers (Phaedra Jarrett and Omori) in an elaborate costume dance different parts of one ballerina. In this case a life-size head, torso and arms are  attached to tiny little feet. The idea is as old as vaudeville and only works if it is smoothly done.  Refreshingly, “Solo,” to Chopin, doesn’t mock ballet but creates a character whose aspirations are not in sync with her reality. With not a cynical bone to it,  “Solo” is dreamy, awkward, funny but never ironic. It also is short. It was a good opener for this evening of story telling in ballet.

Photo: The Oakland Ballet in "Peter and the Wolf." Photo: Andy Mogg.

Volume 3, No. 44
November 28, 2005

copyright ©2005 Rita Felciano



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last updated on November 28, 2005