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The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Plucky Oakland Ballet Snaps Back

Oakland Ballet
Paramount Theater
Oakland, California
November 7, 2003

By Paul Parish
Copyright ©2003 by Paul Parish

Although it was not a great evening at the ballet, there were several truly beautiful moments at last Friday's performance at the Paramount Theater of Oakland Ballet's Program II. This was a mixed rep show that had been postponed, due to weak ticket sales—it had been scheduled to run in October—and was doubled up with Program III, which finished out the weekend. Everything that was lovely happened before the intermission.

Three short pieces formed the first half—a pas de quatre, a pas de trois, and a pas de deux, each one interesting, distinctive, musical, and beautifully danced. The finale was a deconstruction of Revelations, to deconstructed Gospel music that had only a fabulous lighting system (by Michael Korsch) and some sexy costumes going for it. THe dancers knocked themselves out trying to do Dwight Rhoden's thankless choreography, but they didn't get the hang of it—if there is a hang to get. More of that anon.

The Paramount charges a considerable fee for use. It made sense to cut the losses—mixed-reps often draw poorly—and happily there was a good house for Friday night's show. The theater is an enormous Art Deco movie palace that was refurbished a few decades ago and has been the "home" of the Oakland Ballet since the '70's. An interesting sign of just how good the little Oakland Ballet was, back when they were dancing at Laney College Theater and other such venues, was the revival of a ballet from their early days—from 1961, in fact: a version of Satie's Trois Gymnopedies, by the founding artistic director, Ronn Guidi. It was originally premiered at the Raoul Pausé Dance Studio in Oakland— but it projects magnificently and would look good on a stage as big as the Bolshoi's. Guidi's setting came three years before Ashton's, and though it is not a work of genius like Ashton's, it IS a mysterious and hauntingly musical setting of the music.

Like Ashton, Guidi presents the dancers in unitards by moonlight; the dance is made up of simple shifts of weight and huge ronde de jambes, which have uncannily equal value. As with Ashton, you never know what's coming next; the whole thing is mysterious, molto molto legato, stretched and pulled like liquid breath. Also like Ashton, Guidi used the strong accent on the second count that makes the three valses tristes sound like mazurkas. He shifts the impulse so that sometimes the new phrase seems to be in duple meter, sometimes in triple. A huge extension starts before you know it—memorably from turned-in passé, so the whole thigh opens up and extends out and around and melts into supported adagio pirouettes that end after you expect them to. The invention just keeps coming. It's a beautiful dance, and Jenna Johnson was quietly sensational as the first lady.

All four dancers were marvelous in Amy Siewert's fine short study in hyperballet, Monopoly, which was created for American Repertory Ballet of Princeton and had its Oakland Ballet premiere and so far only performance that night. Three men and a woman, all in business suits, lunged, whirled, and darted through curious trajectories to music of Henryk Gorecki until a little red dress descended from the heavens—whereupon Erin Yarborough made an exit, and came back in it for a pas de deux.

Ms Seiwert is a strong dancer in Michael Smuin's company who's been choreographing in the manner of Alonzo King with considerable success for some time. Her new work on the first Summerfest program last summer was quite a hit. She has said that Monopoly is about the price of success in the corporate world, but I felt no need to understand any story. The movement was delicious, the mood interesting, and Ms. Yarborough was especially fine. Junichi Fukuda, Carlos Ventura, and Gabriel Williams managed to find distinctive ways of making themselves felt while working in a beautifully achieved unison.

The loveliest thing all evening, though, was the way Julie Steinberg played Alban Berg's "Opus 1" piano sonata. It's a luminous impressionistic work, and to it Gloria Contreras has set a pas de deux for a couple in flesh-colored unitards that feels like it could be called Pelleas and Melisande (its real title is Opus 45). He spends a lot of time on the floor, sitting on his heels, kneeling, lying supine, in a genuflection, whatever, and their whole relationship seems to be peculiarly tender, mutually worshipful, and doomed. There's one piercingly beautiful moment when Gabriel Williams is kneeling center-stage, reaches towards her, and she (Cynthia Sheppard) comes to him on the diagonal and puts her hip-bones in his hands-it's somehow like that moment in Giselle where she bourrées up to him from behind and leans in arabesque against his shoulder.

I wish I had something good to say about Glory Fugue, the long piece which came after intermission, but it just seems an exploitation of everybody concerned. Sanctimonious but sleazy. Mahalia Jackson is the only one to come through unscathed; even layering Philip-Glass-ish arpeggiation over her magnificent performance of "Precious Lord" couldn't sink her mighty ship of Zion. Whoever did the musical adaptation was not credited in the program—maybe they did not want the credit. It was sumptuously produced, but full of idiot detail, like a nine-piece suit.

The dancers did not fare well. They're pawns in a huge spectacle, and essentially they have to vogue—hit this pose, hit that one, usually with a quirky arm movement that initiates the step (the upper-body equivalent of a double battu before taking a piqué). For some reason, Rhoden uses effacée attitude a LOT, and it was a rare occurrence when the dancers achieved an acceptable line, or looked like they'd been given any sufficient reason by the choreographer to try.

Photo: Erin Yarborough at the dress rehearsal of Amy Seiwert's Monopoly. Photo credit: Andy Mogg.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 7
November 10, 2003
Copyright ©2003 by Paul Parish




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last updated on October 7, 2003