A 50-Year-Old Ballet Company Picks Itself Up, Dusts Itself Off

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Current Oakland Ballet dancers Tyler Rhoads and Daphne Lee in Leonide Massine's "La Boutique Fantasque." (Photo: David DeSilva)

On a recent Friday, the rapping of pointe shoes emanated from the third floor of downtown Oakland's Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts.

In the north studio, choreographer Amy Seiwert worked with five Oakland Ballet dancers to nail the timing of a phrase she'd just created to Vivaldi. Across the hall, in the south studio, former Oakland Ballet star Michael Lowe helped a couple find the right grip for a tricky spiraling lift in his world premiere.

Small and bright-eyed, Oakland Ballet artistic director Graham Lustig sat watching.

"It's so exhilarating to be in the studio with these artists and dancers," Lustig said, then crisply listed off the last names of some of the choreographers of local, national and international acclaim who feature in Oakland Ballet's 50th anniversary celebration on May 23rd.  "One moment we're doing Fokine, then Massine, then Moses, then King, then Seiwert, then Lowe."

The future of Oakland Ballet depends on the show's success.

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Under founding artistic director Ronn Guidi, Oakland Ballet built an international reputation for meticulous, energetic resurrections of nearly-lost classics by masters like Michel Fokine and Leonide Massine.  The company also regularly commissioned leading Bay Area choreographers like Robert Moses and Alonzo King.

Current Oakland Ballet dancers Emily Kerr and Taurean Green in a world premiere ballet by former Oakland Ballet dancer Betsy Erickson. (Photo: David DeSilva)

Those glory days ended in 2000, when Guidi retired and his successor, former Dance Theatre of Harlem star Karen Brown, began a bumpy ride that ended with the company closing in 2006.

Among other challenges, Brown was forced to liquidate the company's resplendent costume stash to repay a loan to the city of Oakland.

Guidi brought the Oakland Ballet back, tentatively, from 2007-2009.  But not until 2010 did the company embark once more on a steady path with the appointment of Lustig.

The former artistic director of American Repertory Ballet in New Jersey, Lustig launched the annual presentation of his own "Nutcracker," brought back the Oakland Ballet's school and summer training programs, and presented several modest spring programs.

Lustig has also faced setbacks: A 2012 program had to be postponed to 2013 due to low ticket sales.  He's counting on the 50th anniversary to "raise the artistic profile of the company."

Saturday's one-off "Five Decades of Oakland Ballet" performance will intermix excerpts of the historical works with a full-length performance of one watershed ballet, Vaslav Nijinsky's erotic "Afternoon of a Faun," from 1912 and six short commissioned ballets.

"It's like a choreographic feast," Lustig said.  "You have classic dishes and nouveau dishes, and you can taste everything.  I wanted to put my arms around the whole history of the company."

Joy Gim and Ron Thiele in Oakland Ballet's 1990 performance of Michel Fokine's "Scheherazade." (Photo: John Markowski)
Joy Gim and Ron Thiele in Oakland Ballet's 1990 performance of Michel Fokine's "Scheherazade." (Photo: John Markowski)

The following day at Laney College, company members will repeat the six world premieres alongside performances by nine other East Bay dance groups, from a belly dance troupe to street dancers the Turffeinz.

Lustig has needed to rent costumes from other companies for this weekend's performances.

"I can't afford for this company to be in an ivory tower," Lustig said.  "We have to be right on the ground.  That's how I see the future of this company whether we're doing Diaghilev or the Turffeinz."

By "Diaghilev," Lustig means Sergei Diaghilev, the famous impresario who created the avant-garde Ballets Russes company, which between 1909 and 1929 scandalized all of Europe and revolutionized dance by pairing leading composers like Igor Stravinsky and designers such as Coco Chanel with the most daring choreographers of the era -- Nijinsky and his sister, Bronislova Nijinska, to name but two.

In addition to the full-length ballet "Afternoon of a Faun," Saturday's program will also feature excerpts from four other Diaghilev-era works: Fokine's "Petrouchka," Massine's "La Boutique Fantasque," and Nijinska's "Le Train Bleu" and "Les Biches."

These are the works that merited Oakland Ballet a place in books like "No Fixed Points: Dance in the 20th Century," a weighty tome that cites Oakland Ballet as "a true bootstraps operation" that "gained a national reputation" when Guidi invited Eugene Loring to stage his forgotten masterpiece Billy the Kid on the company in 1973.  An excerpt from Billy also features on Saturday's program.

Lustig's personal connection to these works seems to have won over key players from Oakland Ballet's past.

Oakland Ballet in Bronislava Nijinksa's "Le Train Bleu" in 1996. (Photo: Emilio Mercado)
Oakland Ballet in Bronislava Nijinksa's "Le Train Bleu" in 1996. (Photo: Emilio Mercado)

Lowe, an Oakland Ballet star from 1972-2000, learned the role of the dashing tennis player in Nijinska's whimsical "Le Train Bleu" directly from Nijinksa's daughter, and will coach this restaging. He and Lustig both learned Fokine's "Petrouchka" from legendary dancer Nikolai Beriozov in the 1970s.

"There's a trust that arises from the similarity in our backgrounds," Lowe said.

Guidi has even given his personal blessing to Lustig's 50th anniversary program-something he did not do during Karen Brown's tenure.  The Oakland Ballet's board is growing - it now has 10 members -- and major funders like the Fleishhacker Foundation and the Osher Foundation have reinstated their support. Most importantly, the dancers seem motivated and happy.

"Graham has a knack for picking dancers who have a strong work ethic," dancer Emily Kerr said.  "The rapport in the studio is wonderful.  I just wish we had a 30-week season.  I look at how we dance together at the end of four weeks and I think, imagine what we could do over 30.  But I'm hopeful that can happen in the future."