A stir of excitement sparked Oakland Ballet’s season opener this month. While the East Bay’s other major dance company, Diablo Ballet, struggles on life support because of recent economic times, the Oakland troupe is thriving. Its success is due largely to artistic director Karen Brown’s energetic leadership and a dedicated board of directors.
Whatever the reason, dance lovers benefit. And from the look and sound of opening night, Oakland Ballet has come into its own as one of the East Bay’s most vibrant cultural purveyors.
The first pleasure of the evening was the Paramount Theater. If you’ve never set foot in its stunning art deco expanse, you owe yourself a visit. An audacious gem, it’s one of the few theaters that truly takes your breath away. It was so packed Friday night, you might have thought you were at San Francisco Ballet.
Good news for Oakland.
Karen Brown introduced the program, nodding to supporter Mayor Jerry Brown, who took a bow. A welcome aspect of the company’s overall upgrade is its commitment to live music, demonstrated by the Turtle Island String Quartet. The band jump-started the evening with a jazz version of “On Green Dolphin Street” that sounded deliciously like Stephane Grappelli crossed with Ali Akbar Khan.
Then came the first piece, “A Night in Tunisia,” choreographed by Charles Anderson to Turtle Island’s version of a Dizzy Gillespie score. A native San Franciscan, Anderson is on the faculty of several local companies. In “A Night in Tunisia,” he’s created a work that’s sunny with barely a whiff of North Africa, but no matter.
What counts is what he’s set to Turtle Island’s syncopated line, and though the result is lightweight, it’s cheerful and crowd-pleasing, full of jazzy lopes, finger snaps and gleefully snaking arms. Featuring an insouciant trio – Ilana Goldman, Chih-Ting Shih, and Katherine Wells – and Peter Strand and Chih-Ting Shih in an agile duet, "Tunisia" concludes with a big finish for 16 dancers, who lack SF Ballet’s precision but move with winning verve.
Who knows what will come when their talents get fine-tuned?
Next on the bill was a revival of Lew Christensen’s 1942 “Jinx” with Christensen’s son leading the East Bay Symphony. A story ballet, it’s one of those circus-metaphor works of 20th century art, from “Petrushka” to “Freaks.” Here a brooding jester pines for a pert high-wire walker while spurning the bearded lady who loves him. Blamed by the troupe for a series of accidents, the jester comes back to haunt them after death. The work has a dated, ’40s air, but it’s fascinating nonetheless, and with an eerie poignancy. A taut Mario Alonzo danced the doomed jester. The colorful circus costumes were by Russell Hartley.
The evening concluded with “Bamboo,” a reprise of Michael Lowe’s hit from last year. Set to music of Melody of China, it unfolds in five scenes to create a world of precise and pleasing harmony, beginning with a dozen entwined dancers who unfold like the petals of a lotus. “Bamboo” features elegant posturings, tai-chi moments, percussive athletic bursts, girls wafting expressive red streamers.
The enthusiastic audience clearly liked these opening steps of Oakland Ballet’s third season under Karen Brown. Upcoming programs feature works by Agnes de Mille, Lew Christensen and the troupe’s own Mario Alonzo, followed by the annual staging of Ron Guidi’s “Nutcracker” in December.