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Oakland Ballet.

Paramount Theater Oakland, California September 13-November 10, 2002

Oakland Ballet's three-program repertory season may have been short, but Artistic Director Karen Brown has put down distinct markers for the direction into which she plans to take the thirty-seven-year-old company. This is what Brown's second year of programming proclaimed: Ballet is part of world dance; there is a budget for live music; and Oakland embraces its (Americana) heritage. A good compass, it should help the company navigate its way out of a near-drowning a few years ago.

Not that Oakland Ballet is not struggling. With fewer dancers than last year, the company seemed to shrink as the season progressed, with the majority of the works asking for ten or fewer performers. Rough spots attest to the fact that rehearsal time was at a premium; a short season also makes it difficult to attract and retain dancers.

Yet despite these shortcomings, Oakland's young dancers performed with spirit, considerable skill, and at times, real joy. Four world and five company premieres (complemented by three revivals) set out td challenge preconceptions about ballet--and to a significant extent they succeeded.

For the time being, audiences seem to be willing to follow Brown's lead. The company says it had 700 more subscribers this year than last. For one thing, the music--a mix of live and taped--these days is often intriguing. How about Alban Berg's astringent piano piece Sonata for Piano, Op. 1 (excellently performed by Julie Steinberg) for Gloria Contreras's sensual, Balanchine-inspired Opus 45? Or Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia," arranged and performed live by the Turtle Island String Quartet for Charles Anderson's playful but amorphous world premiere of the same name? Or an original score for last year's popular hit Bamboo, based on traditional Chinese tunes, played in the pit by the Melody of China and conducted by the choreographer, Michael Lowe? Or a series of Bulgarian songs with which the women of the a cappella group Kitka punctuated Robert Henry Johnson's poignant, quasi-combative male duet Begegnung Pas de Deux, excellently danced by newcomers Bryan Ketron and Gabriel Williams?

IN TERMS OF CHOREOGRAPHY, DWIGHT RHODEN'S TEN-DANCER, ROCKET-PROPELLED GLORY FUGUE WAS THE SEASON'S MOST TECHNICALLY DEMANDING WORLD PREMIERE. IT INTRODUCED THE COMPANY TO THE UNRELENTING DEMANDS OF SPEED AND PRECISION. The dancers, however, seemed to relish the work's fractured continuity and quickly shifting configurations; they dove into this oddly shaped Fugue with confidence and furious exuberance. The same program's other world premiere, the vapid Dei Sogni Piacevoli by the company's ballet master, Luc de Lairesse, challenged neither audiences nor dancers. Set to a medley of popular Baroque tunes, it featured the lovely Erin Yarbrough but gave her little to do as she was led around by dream spirits to encounter Greek gods and goddesses all dressed in white gauze skirts.

For his premiere, Mustt, longtime Oakland dancer Mario Alonzo chose a quintet of dancers--among them the long-limbed Cynthia Sheppard, who danced beautifully in every role she was given this year--for a piece that turned the idea of exultation into a physical struggle. Set to splendid devotional Sufi music by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Alonzo had his dancers inhabit the air--over shoulders, spiraling to the ground, pedaling in flying circles and spread-eagled from trapezes--almost more than they embraced the ground. Its sense of ecstasy, while convincing in spots, too often looked forced because the dancers, particularly in the demanding lifts, looked underrehearsed.

Agnes de Mille's marvelously succinct Three Virgins and a Devil (coached by Dennis Nahat) received an excellently paced and nuanced performance with Williams in the role of the seducing Devil. Virginia Johnson set the season's other narrative ballet, Lew Christensen's 1942 ominous, well-cast Jinx. Alonzo convincingly reprised his part as the scapegoated Jinx. Dwight Oltman conducted Three Virgins and Chris Christensen his father's work, both played by the Oakland East Bay Symphony.

One would have also wished for live music in Oakland's only tutu ballet of the season, Balanchine's Pas de Trois (staged by Marina Eglevsky). A last-minute substitute for another Christensen ballet, Norwegian Moods, Brown unwittingly may have set another marker. Yoira Esquivel-Brito and Yarbrough's fluid ping-pong relationship--with a gallant, though technically unimpressive, Nathaniel Stokes--and the musicality with which they enlivened this fleet and feathery concoction, may indicate that Oakland Ballet can do what they have never done: truly explore Balanchine.

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Title Annotation:three-program repertory season
Author:Felciano, Rita
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
Previous Article:The Sacramento Ballet.
Next Article:Transitions.

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