Oakland Ballet

September 15, 2000

Oakland Ballet presents Betsy Erickson’s Sfumato.
Photo by Marty Sohl courtesy Oakland Ballet

Oakland Ballet

Paramount Theater
Oakland, California

September 15?17, 2000

Reviewed by Rita Felciano

Expectations ran high for this year’s opening night at Oakland Ballet, now under the directorship of former Dance Theater of Harlem principal Karen Brown. Since Brown only started her job on August 1, she had had no hand in preparing this season’s repertoire. Still, you couldn’t miss a note of excitement in the air. For one thing, the company, now thirty-one dancers strong, is the largest it has been for years. Also, somewhat unusually in a ballet program, guest pianist Awadagin Pratt performed three solos before sitting down again to play the inexplicably chosen Brahm’s Variations and Fugue in B-Flat on a Theme by Handel, Opus 24, for Mary Cochran’s Onomatomania, the evening’s lone premiere.

But since three of the four pieces, Betsy Erickson’s Sfumato, Alonzo King’s Love Dogs and Tomm Ruud’s Bella di Notte, emphasized duet works, and the one premiere, the much anticipated Onomatomania, proved to be an incoherent muddle, no clear picture of where the company might be heading emerged.

But former Acting Artistic Director Joral Schmalle knew what he was doing when he scheduled Erickson’s 1986 Sfumato, to Boccherini’s Concerto No. 2 in D Major for Cello and Strings (on tape, unfortunately) as a season opener. As effervescent as champagne, this lovely pastel-colored interpretation of the score had the dancers look like young gods and goddesses giving body to Boccherini?s lilting, yet sturdily constructed music. Most refreshing was the unapologetically traditional use of ballet vocabulary with fleet and delicate footwork, light port de bras and extensions and elevations that avoided the extremes. Yet the occasional touches of wit?a kick here and there, crawling through a partner’s arms, sylph-like port de bras a little too studiously posed, sly glances at the audience?infused this frothy concoction with late twentieth-century accents. If this be the future of music visualization, play on!

King’s four-part Love Dogs, commissioned by Oakland Ballet last season, is set on three couples and a soloist, Michael Lowe. The work abounds with King’s familiar eye-catching off-kilter balances, super-extensions and fierce pointework. But much more intriguing is the way he here allows movement to unfold and stretch to the breaking point, only to pull it in and re-establish equilibrium. Underneath King’s even most acrobatic and idiosyncratic perspective on ballet is a sense of balance and harmony that is absolutely classical. In Love Dogs this was most explicitly stated when Lowe’s agitated “seeker” in “Complaint” was calmed and absorbed into the geometry of the design created by the two accompanying couples.

Bella di Notte
is named after a flower that blossoms and dies in one night. In Ruud’s voluptuously sculptural duet the flower became the emblem of a relationship between Erin Yarbrough and Mario Alonzo as their intertwined bodies musically opened, separated and, in a final twirl, honored each other.

Cochran has said that she wanted to pay tribute to Oakland’s history with Onomatomania. A charming idea, and the references to Diaghilev repertoire, most clearly Les Biches, were there. But unfortunately the piece looked like a laundry basket full of spiffy accoutrements?kick lines, tap, garland dances, a little of Graham, some Taylor and mime passages from Giselle. Something should have happened to this material. Not much did.

What the piece did show was a company that is energetic, enthusiastic and able to throw itself competently into a variety of material. Maybe that’s not such a bad way to start a new era.