Maybe it had to be this way. Maybe the Oakland Ballet had to nearly die in order to be reborn. A year ago the company had no dancers, no studio, no season. Friday night it had energy, sass, and momentum to spare. The Oakland Ballet was indisputably alive.
A quick recap of the rise and fall and (we hope) rise again: In 1965, Ronn Guidi founded a ballet company in industrial Oakland, of all places. For decades it was a scrappy little home-grown troupe. Then, in the late 1970?s, Guidi got a taste for revivals. He started with Eugene Loring?s ?Billy the Kid? and progressed to the Ballets Russes repertory, winning worldwide acclaim for resurrecting the startling and chic ballets of Bronislava Nijinska. But in 1998 Guidi suddenly quit, leaving a host of financial problems. Former Dance Theatre of Harlem ballerina Karen Brown took the helm in 2000, but the company seemed to flounder for direction?and funding. In 2004, just as the company?s dancing was starting to rebound, Brown cancelled the year?s season, fired the dancers, and issued an urgent call: Raise $500,000 immediately and launch a comeback 40th anniversary season in 2005, or close forever.
The money came through, and Brown opened this truncated 40th season with a program designed to celebrate the past and look to the future. Nijinska?s ?Les Biches? and ?Les Noces,? alas, did not show to best advantage in excerpt form; Loring?s ?Billy the Kid,? with handsome Gabriel Williams as the outlaw gunman, was perhaps not as tension-charged as it could have been, but fared better. Former company dancer Michael Lowe?s ?Double Happiness,? expanded since its premiere two years ago and accompanied by live Chinese folk music, proved the audience favorite.
But for me it was in Donald McKayle?s world premiere, ?Ella,? that we saw glimpses of a company with a bright future. Finally Brown has called on a master to give Oakland Ballet what emerging choreographers like Robert Moses and Dwight Rhoden have failed to: a new ballet worth repeating, a ballet with the potential to become a company calling card. Set to?you guessed it?Ella Fitzgerald tunes, ?Ella? is simple in concept, absolutely assured in melding the struts and swaggers of African American dance to ballet technique. Even with a nasal and unmusical chanteuse on live vocals, ?Ella? had the crowd swinging.
Because the thing is?God knows how he got the rehearsal time and the energy to do it?McKayle has gotten the Oakland dancers to strut like they own it. I dare anyone to take their eyes off Phaedra Jarrett bopping her bouncy, hip-swaying way through ?A Tisket A Tasket,? or to so much as check the program during Preston Dugger III?s rippling, stop-on-a-dime rendition of the closer, ?In My Solitude.?
To be sure, this is the strongest crop of dancers Brown has fielded in the last five years. The men?s contingent, once a source of edge-of-your-seat unease (will he break his ankle trying to finish that double tour?), now bounds from strength to strength. Williams, the most promising leading man before the company?s closure, has returned with more technique than ever. Matthew Linzer is a tall, beautifully proportioned addition to the roster, and Dugger is an Ailey-esque virtuoso of balance and power. On the women?s side, the MVPs are Jarrett and the fine-boned, ladylike Cynthia Sheppard. Amazonian Ilana Goldman also gets a lot of play, and while I?ve yet to take a shine to her dancing, which strikes me as a bit stiff (she was particularly not suited to the terre-a-terre footwork of the hostess in ?Les Biches?), I?m not ruling her out yet.
But perhaps just as important as the new dancers is Oakland Ballet?s new venue. No more funereal evenings in the vast and sparsely populated Paramount Theater. True, the company is still working out the kinks at their new home, the Calvin Simmons: A will-call line to the tiny box office trailed down the windy block, live music from the Marcus Shelby Orchestra for ?Ella? was painfully over-amplified, and patrons in the VIP Olympic Club weren?t alerted to the end of intermission, sending dozens of attendees scurrying in the dark for their seats after the curtain had risen on ?Billy the Kid.? But the house?which holds about 1,000?was well populated, the sightlines good, the stage ample, and the excitement bouncing back and forth from the dancers and the crowd palpable.
It?s a small shame, then, that these dancers won?t have much chance this year to keep the momentum going. Brown has elected for family fare on the company?s November program: Guidi?s ?Peter and the Wolf,? which even he has described as not one of his better ballets, and ?The Sorcerer?s Apprentice? by a choreographer I?ve never heard of, Scott Rink. Whether the kid-friendly strategy will help build an audience base remains to be seen, but from a selfish standpoint, how much more thrilling would it have been to see full productions of ?Les Biches? and ?Les Noces? instead?
Still, for the first time since Brown became artistic director, I had the sense Friday night that she is a woman with a plan. She has the dancers now, and the right space; what she?ll need is more commissions on the order of ?Ella,? and more regular and thoroughly coached revivals of the Ballets Russes rep. Can she do it? Was the strength of this comeback program a one-off? I don?t know, but I?m looking forward to finding out.