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Oakland Ballet

'Les Noces' and 'Les Biches' (excerpts), 'Double Happiness,' 'Billy the Kid,' 'Ella'

by Toba Singer

October 16, 2005 -- Calvin Simmons Theatre, Oakland, California

Speaking to a full house at the Calvin Simmons Theatre, Oakland Ballet Director, Karen Brown, offered words of welcome in celebration of the company’s recovery from a financial setback that resulted in the cancellation of last year’s season. 

This season’s opening program featured a very appetizing mixed rep, which included excerpts from Bronislava Nijinksa’s “Les Noces” and “Les Biches;” Michael Lowe’s “Double Happiness,” accompanied by Melody of China; Eugene Loring’s “Billy the Kid;” and Donald McKayle’s “Ella,” accompanied by the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra and vocalist, Ledisi. 

The first two pieces have as their themes, the alienated roles society imposes upon women—from opposite ends of the social spectrum. In “Les Noces,” a peasant wedding marks the end of a young woman’s connection to her girlhood and family of origin, as she is symbolically tethered, by the plaiting of her hair, to the ties that bind her not only to her husband, but to all wives who find themselves in similar circumstances. In “Les Biches,” a 1920s French vamp is beset with all the trappings and affectations of her privileged social position—a cigarette holder, a model’s swaybacked sashay, and a burden of pearls that she has no idea what to do with. They serve to wrap her up in an ungainly package --like the braid in the previous piece--from which she cannot break free. Of the two pieces, “Les Noces” reads a bit better on the small stage than does “Les Biches,” which requires more distance from the audience to -- successfully convey the froideur of the vamp. The technical challenge in “Les Noces,” to maintain the upper body in a “held” position, while the legs and feet do all the work -- was met well by the dancers, in their traditional costumes of brown jumpers with white bodices. There is a parallel challenge in “Les Biches,” but it is relieved by the opportunity taken by the single female to dance with two male partners. 

“Double Happiness” is a tongue-in-cheek look at the Asian journey, and is divided into three parts. The first, “Gold Rush Folk,” opens with Gabriel Williams in Chinese dress, wearing a cowboy hat, representing the ambivalence of the immigrant hybrid. He launches his journey from behind a Chinese screen, and returns there for refreshment before partnering the eye-catching Mariko Takahashi. They polka and do a cowpoke prance, acquitting themselves joyously. The traditional Western clop, clops, signalling the arrival of a horse, are played on a Chinese instrument to great comic effect. The couple’s duet is made funnier when they do crossover trades of her scarf and his hat—taking a quick dive behind the screen for the sake of exaggerated modesty (and presumably, the less amusing purpose of appropriating scant moments of privacy from the ever-present scrutiny of non-Asian spectators). 

As the dancers cross the stage in the opening moments of Eugene Loring’s “Billy the Kid,” and the plaintive strains of Copland’s music call out, you take in the backdrop—a desert filled with cacti -- and see how the poses of the dancers mimic the cacti. You are experiencing the nodal moment in this piece. It is a moment further engorged by the regional history the work represents, as well as the dance history gathered up in the folds of its choreography. The trouble is that even though there is a story, and the story is based on a legend, both the legend and the choreography depicting it have become dated, and no matter how well it is danced, there is no escaping that datedness. It is the elephant on the prairie.

Part of the problem resides in the fact that the piece is built around a one-joke portrayal of cowboy culture and that joke is the caricature of the bow-legged cowpoke, slowed in his movements. The piece brings in all the cowboy paraphernalia and appurtenances: from boots and ten-gallon hats to dance hall girls, and mimed pistols, ropes and knives. Most of the dancing is limited to bringing those elements to life as realistically as possible, in an era when they have been replaced by ninjas, ho’s, box cutters, cattle prods, shaved heads, and AK-47s. No matter how well they are mimed, they tend to be dwarfed by what we collectively know about their state-of-the-art successors. The dance hall girls are too timid--again, diminished by their modern-day prototype: Pam Greer, with a razor blade tucked under her tongue in “Fort Apache in the Bronx.” That’s the problem. As for the men, working in boots, where music is sparse, can be tricky. The footwork has to be as clean as a time step, because it is the only visible and audible effort, and must appear effortless, lest the audience wince in empathy with the struggling dancer.

The tension is relieved when Donald McKayle’s “Ella” is unloosed to the music of Marcus Shelby, with Ledisi at the mike, giving us Fitzgerald’s “A Tisket, a Tasket.” Here we are treated to the real talents resident in the newly forged company, aided and abetted by eight students from the Oakland School of the Arts, who display great promise. Our eyes keep returning to Mariko Takahashi, Paunika Jones, as well as Genevieve Custer and Zara Hayes, who, in "Begin the Beguine," have substituted unflinching precision, attack and verve for their earlier "Billy the Kid" dancehall girl diffidence.

The audience showed its appreciation for an ambitious program and the rebirth of Oakland Ballet. Hats off to Karen Brown, who is anything but a quitter. Utilizing her tremendous gift for mobilizing, organizing and inspiring, she went out in search of all the pieces necessary to put Oakland Ballet back together again, and what might have looked like Mission Impossible two years ago, has now ended up as Mission Accomplished. Bravo!


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