On a recent Wednesday, the Oakland Ballet studios came alive with movement and music. Choreographers Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton worked with three pairs of dancers to fine-tune a series of lifts that exploded with the intensity of a cannon blast to the unearthly sounds of medieval hymns, thrillingly spun by the women of the Oakland-based chamber vocal ensemble Vajra Voices.
Choreographer Val Caniparoli hammered out tempi and phrasing for “Oh! Susanna,” “Beautiful Dreamer” and other 19th century parlor songs by Stephen Foster together with another local choir, the Berkeley Community Chamber Singers. And Nona Brown and her Inspirational Music Collective’s rousing, modern arrangements of African American spirituals, set to choreography by Oakland Ballet’s artistic director Graham Lustig, capped the three-hour rehearsal for this triple bill of brand new work premiering Thursday, Apr. 14 in three different venues around the Bay.
In an age when ballet companies are either folding or recycling the tried and tested, Lustig has stepped boldly onto a precipice. Oakland Ballet’s A Cappella–Our Bodies Sing continues to explore intriguing new collaborations with local artists and musicians, and to test these classically trained dancers’ versatility. But will it attract the recognition and loyal following that the company earned in its glory days?
Some who followed Oakland Ballet in the 1980s and 90s mourn the loss of the distinctive appeal the company had under founder Ronn Guidi. In its glory days, Oakland Ballet was renowned for the scrupulous style and drama of its revivals of Diaghilev-era ballets like Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun and Nijinska’s Les Noces, and for championing mid-20th century icons of American dance and music such as Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid and Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend.
Still, with close to 30 dancers in the big Diaghilev revivals and budgets of over $2 million in the mid-1990s, Oakland Ballet then had more than twice the resources that Lustig has today -- 12 dancers, with an additional 10 hired for The Nutcracker, and a $740,000 operating budget. (The comparatively modest budget, is up 15 percent on last year, though.)
Now in his seventh season at the helm of the company, Lustig appears to have navigated past the rockiest financial shoals, though funding constraints have kept seasons grievously short. He has commissioned imaginative new work from Bay Area choreographers including Amy Seiwert, Robert Moses and Sonya Delwaide. Meanwhile, his integration of ballet dancers with the hip-hop collective Turf Feinz crew and the wheelchair-bound dancers of AXIS Dance have helped to galvanize new audiences around ballet.
So it is heartening news to hear of the company’s expansion around the Bay. For the first time in 20 years, Oakland Ballet will bring this latest program to San Francisco on Thursday, Apr. 21 after its three-day run in Oakland. The company then appears in Hayward for the first time, at Chabot College, on Saturday, Apr. 23.
“Small budget, big dreams” is how Lustig sums up his philosophy. “We don’t spend what we don’t have.” What precious little the company has is also shared: for the second year, Oakland Ballet is inviting local cohorts to its East Bay DANCES Festival on Sunday Apr. 17. This year’s eclectic lineup includes AXIS Dance Company, Diablo Ballet, Jubilee American Dance Theatre, The Milissa Payne Project, Patty Chu’s Chinese Folk Dance, Quicksilver Dance, and Savage Jazz Dance Company.
Lauren Jonas, artistic director of Diablo Ballet based in Walnut Creek, credits festivals like this with extending the reach of smaller companies. “We continue to thrive by staying small," Jonas says. "But we have to have a multi-pronged approach, performing in venues of different sizes and in different cities. We know what makes us unique and how to capitalize on that.” Jonas speaks with the confidence of someone who has the pulse of her community, whose tiny, nine-member, 22-year-old company engages in frequent conversation with its audiences.
A challenging landscape
Not all dance organizations are so embedded with their communities. The Bay Area dance world is mourning the recent demise of Silicon Valley Ballet. A succession of ego clashes and financial crises felled the storied company formerly known as Ballet San Jose. The donor class of Silicon Valley was criticized in some quarters for its philistinism and failure to value the artistry at its doorstep.
Unfortunately, the expensive business of ballet cannot pay for itself through ticket sales. The intense daily training, the cost of maintaining and repairing dancers’ bodies, the array of specialists required to collaborate on a production, the cost of ballerinas’ handmade pointe shoes -- that often disintegrate after only one performance -- all add up to a fortune.
Companies like Oakland Ballet and Diablo Ballet continue to survive by sensibly downsizing while continuing to take artistic risk with new commissions, unconventional collaborations, and live music. As such, they are able to put a singular stamp on the cultural map of their communities. Their existence remains fragile, however. Unless civic and private organizations recognize these organizations’ important contributions to Bay Area prestige, their seasons will remain distressingly brief.