Oakland Ballet

'Double Happiness,' 'Dark Light,' 'Glinka Pas de Trois,' 'Joplin Dances'

by Mary Ellen Hunt

September 13, 2003 -- Paramount Theater, Oakland, CA

It's hard not to root for a ballet company that's working so hard to make a go of it in an arts landscape mined with budget deficits and lackluster box office showings.  But with the demise of state funding for the arts in California and an economy that shows no signs of improving vastly in the near term, troupes such as the Oakland Ballet will have to be clever and stay focused to keep themselves afloat and still draw in audiences. 

Oakland's recent opening program unveiled a company that is sporting a roster of dancers strengthened by new faces as well as some longtime favorites. But unfortunately, with a neither here-nor-there collection of mixed rep, the program seemed neither to suit the gifts of these dancers nor to point the way to the future.

What looks best on Oakland Ballet is a combination of athleticism and dramatic flair, and the evening did get off to a good start with Michael Lowe's "Double Happiness" offering enough of both to make for an entertaining, pretty opener.   Like his successful 2001 work, "Bamboo," Lowe's latest work was set to the folk-inspired music of Melody of China, which in itself is worth a listen.

The first chapter of "Double Happiness," "Gold Rush Folk," was a Chinese-themed Spaghetti Western featuring Gabriel Williams and Chih-Ting Shih as a pair of flirtatious lovers. Williams's elastic jumps and winning personality played nicely against Shih's coquetry. Shih was one of the delights of Oakland 's season opener last year, and it was a pleasure to see her back as a guest performer this season, splitting time between Oakland and the local aerial company, Capacitor.

Bright, attractive costumes by company dancer Mario Alonzo went a long way to set the cheerful mood, and props like the elegant lacquered Chinese screen and William's over-sized cowboy hat telegraphed the general cultural picture. In fact, the whole endeavor had a certain charm to it in practice. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but cringingly contrast the rosy-hued picture postcard of a pretty Chinese girl who catches the eye of a cowboy, with the history of the Chinese immigrant laborers in the Old West, who were exploited in a very non-cute fashion in the 19th century.

The duet was the first of three set pieces that as a whole never quite melded together.   Although I thought long and hard about how they were all connected -- the first duet features a Chinese girl flirting with a cowboy, the second is an abstract interpretation of two horses gamboling with two carp, and the third represents a Chinese wedding banquet -- the three segments of the ballet never seemed more than loosely associated vignettes that might almost have been better billed as three separate ballets.   I suppose I could get from cowboy to horses, or from carp -- a symbol of good luck -- to wedding banquet, but I was truly stymied by the horse-carp connection.

The second vignette, to be frank, also sounded like a coy premise, and it would have been such, if not for the presence of Erin Yarbrough, whose elegant lines belied her plucky approach to some daunting partnering that required the utmost trust in her partner.  Pluckiness also marked the fast paced finale, "Little Banquet," in which a jaunty and stylish Phaedra Jarrett stood out from the group of six women.

After intermission, the air changed sharply with Oakland's revival of Francesca Harper's "Dark Light," a moody self-conscious, post-9/11 work for seven dancers who arrive onstage, move front and center, intone lines filled with portentous weightiness such as "What is more fragile than the security of our nation?" and then leave.

In the program notes, Harper indicated that "Dark Light" is intended to be "deconstructionist in nature." However, the literality of the texts that the dancers recited hardly invited deconstructionist discourse.   Harper's direction here seemed to be more tanz-theater than anything else, but far from setting up a biting political mood, the opening had the unsettling feeling of making the cast uncomfortable.   To my eye, the choreographer abandoned her players in a vulnerable position without giving them the tools that would bring credibility and command to the picture.

Happily the second half of the piece was more choreographic, and it turned out to be a nicely assembled athletic investigation of balance and momentum which would have been satisfying on its own, without the text that preceded it.  Although at the end, Jarrett removing her pointe shoes as the word "HUMAN" came into focus on the back cyc mired the piece again in too much self-importance.

After a brief pause, there was a substantial shift in mood to George Balanchine's "Glinka Pas de Trois," danced by Yarbrough, Jenna Johnson and guest artist, Maximo Califano.   Deceptively light-hearted and flirtatious, "Glinka" is a fiendishly hard trio disguised as a frothy sorbet.   To pull it off, the dancers must have a breezy camaraderie and sense of humor, not to mention dazzling speed and rock-solid technique.   Unfortunately, in terms of the latter two qualities, "Glinka" remained just out of reach throughout most of the ballet.  

Yarbrough gave off the most sparks, mainly through her instinctive sprightly phrasing of the music.  Johnson managed mainly through sheer force of will, although her somewhat strained expression may have simply been worry about the shoe that was working its way off of her foot for a substantial section of the trio.

As for Califano, we can only hope that as a guest artist, he was terribly under-rehearsed, and this was the reason for his flagging energy.   "Glinka" is a stamina run, undoubtedly -- there is barely a let-up for all three dancers -- but Califano's sloppy execution was most shockingly apparent in turned-in positions, unpointed feet, and loose cabriole beats in which one leg never even made contact with the other.

The evening closed with the Oakland Ballet's first outing of Robert Garland's "Joplin Dances," a two-part ragtime closer of a ballet nimbly accompanied by David Thomas Roberts and Frank French on duelling pianos.   The opening scene, which involved two turn-of-the-century couples in period dress play-acting about the cafe set, left the impression of being all character and not much dance.   Long skirts on the women hid what might have been interesting steps, but Kate Leiberth and Williams made the most of their sidling dance with a broom, and Jarrett and Jakee Malik Johnson gave their stoptime duet an appropriate hoofer air.

But for the umpteenth time that evening, the mood shifted precipitously -- you could get whiplash from this much shifting -- with the sudden flurried entrance of can-can girls in balletic costumes and pointe shoes.   It looked like they were from a completely different ballet.   Once past that mental change however, there were several nice performances from the soloists, including Gianna Davy and Ilana Goldman, partnered by Daniel Precup.

Brown's close ties with Dance Theatre of Harlem, the company that she grew up in, are readily apparent.   Both Harper and Garland are DTH alums and like DTH, Oakland has chosen to dip into Balanchine works.   But what Oakland lacks at the moment is what DTH has carefully emphasized over its long history and that is a kind of focused company identity -- branding if you will.   That need for focus is what really hinders this mixed up, mixed rep bill, and it highlights the fact that while Oakland has many quality dancers, it has yet to gather the quality repertoire that will showcase them to their best advantage.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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