writers on dancing

Still Oakland's Exasperating Ballet

Oakland Ballet
Paramount Theater
September 12-13

reviewed by Paul Parish

Years ago, my colleague Ann Murphy wrote a piece called "Oakland's Exasperating Ballet"she hit the nail on the head. That is the perennial subject.

It could hardly be otherwise, given the size of their budget. They're a regional ballet company that often used to dance with more elan and conviction than companies in the big leagues, at least for the last ballet on the program, after leaving you yawning for the first hour. You went with that because A) there were only so many dancers; B) they didn't have the rehearsal time nor the new shoes nor even a stage with any great depth or width or even enough lighting instruments, despite the glamour of the art-deco Paramount Theater they usually performed in, which they could never fill; and C) because they would always do something that would take your breath away before the evening was out.

What made them wonderful was a composite of necessity, invention, and imaginationthe Bay Area is full of excellent dancers who live here for personal reasons and want to dance, and 20-25 years ago San Francisco Ballet would only take "Balanchine bodies," with the result that utterly fantastic dancers like Janet Carole, who was beautifully proportioned (and exquisitely SAB-trained, one of Danilova's favorites), but too short for SFB danced in Oakland. Julie Lowe, another short dancer with a marvelous facility and an extraordinary dance imagination, was a star there, along with Abra Rudicil, Summer Lee Rhatigan. Sally Streets had a third career at Oakland, marvelous dancers like Cynthia Chin, Joy Gim….

Please forgive the roll call, but the fact is these dancers realized themselves on-stage in the extraordinary repertory Ronn Guidi got for them. Eugene Loring made new ballets for them, set Billy the Kid lovingly on them; Massine would teach them the upper body first and only after they'd gotten that right would he teach the actual steps of his ballets, which they became a great repository for. They danced Scheherazade like they meant it, and Fall River Legend melted the walls. When they revived Nijinska's Les Noces, the whole country took noticetheir reviews in New York were as glowing as theirs in their home town.

Oakland Ballet made its start in a pre-professional era: already in the late 90’s, Guidi was having difficulty staying within budget, living with the kind of attention and regulation that came with the success the company had achieved when ballerinas with husbands who could support them would dance (not gladly, but they’d do it) for a pittance while male dancers with little training or experience were getting really paid. They did not always pay royalties for the music they danced to. Board members did not have to pony up the large contributions they’re now expected to regularly; they were Oakland professional and society people, with connections and taste and money and practical imaginationlike Lois di Domenico, the inventor of Rice-a-Roni—and they brought their friends and influence and let Guidi have his way, within reason. When Karen Brown, former ballerina with Dance Theater of Harlem, replaced the ailing Guidi, they left. (Ms. di Domenico is now on the boards of KQED and Philharmonia Baroque.)

And Guidi had a lot going for him. He wasisa remarkable if eccentric teacher. He will put on a Beethoven Symphony or Swan Lake and use the whole thing for his barre; you learn to adjust, and it is a strangely musical class. He also really understands secrets about turnout; as a child he was somewhat crippled from turn-in and was sent to ballet orthopedically. The dancers who came to him already trained learned a more natural way of turning, and the children who came up through his training and were put onstage in their very early teensDebra Isaacson, Joy Gim especiallywere like young angels on the stage, gifted, musical, inspired and inspiring. And he had superb ballet mistresses—Betsy Erickson, Angene Feves and Sally Streetswho kept the dancers moving powerfully and eloquently and musically from their centers.

Perhaps the luckiest thing was that Guidi’s taste was for the old Ballets Russes mannerthe demi-caractere school of Massineso he was not in competition with the Balanchine-style San Francisco Ballet. At the same time it must be said, SFB had the Balanchine look but not the Balanchine musicality, nor theflair for moving powerfully through positions.

All this is a long preamble to saying that Oakland Ballet’s disappointing showing last Friday night continues a decline we were seeing before Guidi’s health, and difficulties with his executive director, forced him to retire, but there are new levels of weakness that were not there before.

The company is full of new facesin a real sense, it is not a company yetwhich would beg one’s indulgence, except this has been going on for a while. They are not dancing well, and the ballets are either not appropriate to them or not worthy of them.

The best piece on the show was Michael Lowe’s Double Happiness, unfortunately, a very slight character-ballet, though what’s there is charming. A long-time principal dancer, Lowe has danced Alias in Billy the Kid, Albrecht in Giselle, the acrobat in Le Train Bleu, every major role in the Oakland rep, and in this ballet he continues fusing ballet with Chinese popular acrobatics and dance, an idiom he invented in his wonderful ballet Bamboo, new two years ago and the finest new work created for them. But this piece was just a couple of skits; the first (“Gold Rush Folk”) for a Chinese cowboy and his girl-friend, looked a lot like Billy the Kid in places. Gabriel Walters sprang joyfully about in great split-jumps, and Chih-Ting Shih was adorable as the girl: head and hand positions exquisite, rhythm and inflection very musical. But it was over in no time.

A second section featuring horses and goldfishmarvelous fish-action from Erin Yarboroughand then it was gone. A corps dance that followed that left no impression at all, and then there was an intermission.

Too many people in that piece had to chance costume to get into the next, but it was deadly programming. We had nothing to think about, and then were brought back in for a fabulous display of hyperballetthe Forsythe idiom, which these dancers can certainly doinexplicably attached to a ghastly set of pronouncements about humanity, the sort of thing sixth-graders might have been asked to write in response to September 11. The dancers actually came forward and said these things out loud, in their untrained voices, with all the conviction they could muster. The piece is called Dark Light, by Francesca Harper. The dancers can certainly do these steps, but that’s all that can be said for this stupefyingly pretentious piece.

Alas, it was followed by Balanchine’s Glinka Pas de trois, an exhausting experience for everyone involved, especially the audience. Fine dancers, but they are not familiar with this style and this ballet was difficult when Maria Tallchief, Melissa Hayden, and Andre Eglevsky danced it back in the 50’s. (It was set on them by Marina Eglevsky, who certainly knows the ballet.)

They looked under-rehearsed. Ms. Yarborough could probably learn it with just a little more time; sections of her role were lovely, though she is long of back and short of leg for this style. But Maximo Califano was actually miscast. I’ve seen him in class, a noble dancer whose natural manner is to dance behind the music, with grand execution and a long follow-through. His pirouettes in passé feel like grand pirouettes. This pas de trois is very fast and sparkling, the appropriate attack is light and bright and pouncing.

The Evening closed with Robert Garland’s ragtime ballet, The Joplin Dances, the only section with live musicand very well-played it was, by David Thomas Roberts and Frank French, who are widely-recognized exemplars of ragtime as a living tradition. Joplin is a suite of neo-classical dances in a Balanchinean manner made by Garland for Dance Theater of Harlem, who dance it with a lot of moxie and drive. This is Karen Brown country, and it should have made up for everything else all evening. And maybe during the rest of the run, it did

But on opening night the only thing that was really alive on the stage was the fabulous performance of Jakee Malik Johnson as the suitor in the second “old timey” dance with which the ballet begins. Johnson’s dancing contained the idiomatic, easy imaginative projection of the music that used to be a regular feature of Oakland Ballet’s performances you’d see it everywhere, all the way through. The Mexican women in Billy the Kid would sweep in anonymously, and you believed in them; they didn’t thrust themselves on you, they were just doing their thing, but it was completely rightthey’d bring their knees together like “nice girls” and you knew who they were. That’s only one example, but the point is that it was the basis for everything. And it was there, very consistently.

In Joplin, there was musical, easy dancing from very few people. Gianna Davy in "The Pastime Rag" was on her leg and easy and musical at all times, and Gabriel Williams was delightful in “Jumpin de Broom,” but most everybody else was strained or pushing themselves on you, especially Ilana Goldman, the ballerina. Goldman is a strikingly tall dancer, marvelous long legs, beautiful feetbut I have yet to see her dance a whole phrase without over-emphasizing some image at the expense of the sweep of the phrase. She sells it too hard and instead of letting you enjoy something that is very very easy to enjoy, she picks out images and holds them up for an unnecessary emphasis, like an anxious hostess who will not let you sit in the chair you just got comfortable in.

She did the same thing as “The Girl from Ipanema” last year.

That’s a mistake that an artistic director should be able to fix. Ronn Guidi never made THAT kind of mistake. Neither did Ashton nor Balanchine.

copyright Paul Parish 2003 








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(c) 2003 by danceviewwest
page last updated: September 21, 2003