Tuesday, October 28, 2008

no caviar to the general

Saturday, October 25, 8pm at the Paramount Theater, Oakland
reprinted by permission

While most of us are watching our investments wither or our 401(k)s tank, Ronn Guidi and Oakland Ballet are plumping up the company's bank account with $200,000 from Bank of America's Community Builders Award. The prize, announced Saturday as an Oakland Ballet performance began, is given nationally each year to honor organizations that contribute in significant ways to their community, and is the kind of support the struggling company needs to move out of convalescence and into full recovery.

Accepting the honor, Guidi appeared before the curtain all in black, looking a decade or two younger than his 73 years. After promising to say little, he was as loquacious as he was relaxed, discussing the company's commitment to works that portray the human condition. "I'd love to bring back the 'Green Table,'" he said of the iconic German anti-war work choreographed in 1932 by Kurt Jooss, who was to narrowly escape a Nazi dragnet in Germany a year later.

Although the day when Oakland Ballet is able to remount such classics still appears a long way off, the troupe is able in the meantime to make seasonal forays onto the stage, presenting a limited sample of its repertory. Saturday's included three scenes from the ballet's "Romeo and Juliet," with music by Sergei Prokofiev, Ron Thiele's whimsical, beautifully crafted "How'd They Catch Me?" to a score by Igor Stravinsky, and Michael Lowe's charming fusion ballet "Bamboo" to traditional Chinese music. The evening was well-constructed if overlong; the dancing, far stronger than it had been in Guidi's several years before his abrupt retirement in 1999, was occasionally sublime; and the warmth and sweetness among the performers onstage and in the audience was palpable.

Guidi's "Romeo" is a modest work, its choreography often little more than classroom exercises that speak to the potent music in a desultory way. But it has its strengths, including the rich Italianate motifs, the humanity of its characters and, for Saturday viewers, the depiction of Juliet by curtain-stealer Jenna McClintock, especially in the pas de deux, which soared with lifts, arches and darting leg work. She has become a gorgeous and generous dancer.

If there was a significant disappointment Saturday it was that Guidi didn't pair the lithe and elegant Ikolo Griffin (a former corps member of San Francisco Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Joffrey Ballet and now with Smuin Ballet) with McClintock. With the best technique of the men onstage by a mile and a sweet demeanor to match, Griffin, who is mixed race, was the one dancer among the men who could have been able to meet McClintock's liquidy passion with his own ardor, her precise dancing with his.

Although there are often reasons for casting choices the public never knows, the upshot was that Guidi appeared once again to stumble into one of the ballet world's unfortunate stereotypes, putting the handsome blond Ethan White in the Romeo role when little but his looks were truly princely. Had Guidi cast Griffin instead, not only would the choice have added complexity to the dancing, but both Paris (African-American Omar Shabazz, who embodied the role with deep kindness and decorum) and Romeo would have been men of color. This, in turn, would have broken down some tired racial boundaries. Until the best movers are offered the choicest roles in ballet regardless of skin tone, the form will remain inhospitable to the broadest pool of talent and the broadest public.

Thiele's "How'd They Catch Me?" (1989) and Lowe's "Bamboo" are lovely indicators of the aesthetic that Guidi promoted in Oakland. Not only did he nurture local talent and encourage his dancers to choreograph, but he also spread his values about craft and gentle humanity, and these are clearly evident in both works.

"Catch Me?" set to Igor Stravinsky's Two Suites for Small Orchestra, veers through musical motifs in its eight scenes with wry gamesmanship, and yet is wonderfully personable and charming. Dancers march with playful bravura, mimic beach balls, flirt and folk dance. Although 20 years old, it has lost none its magic.

Lowe's "Bamboo" has weathered well, too, though as Asian dance has permeated both modern and ballet vocabularies and as martial arts is ubiquitous, the dance seems quainter than it did when it premiered seven years ago.

Nevertheless, Lowe's talent is clearly evident. He conducts the Melody of China in the pit, masterfully handles traditional Chinese motifs through ballet vocabulary and creates a world that is both recognizable and otherworldly.

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