Tuesday, June 04, 2019


Oakland Ballet Company
Laney College Theater, Oakland
June 2nd, 2019

Ramona Kelley and Kevyn Butler in
Bat Abbit's Sunday Kind of Love
Photo John Hefti
For the past five years, Oakland Ballet Company has closed its annual season in a wonderfully unique fashion. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Graham Lustig, for its final performance, OBC invites the local/regional dance and choreographic community to join them onstage for a shared program, East Bay DANCES. A wide diversity of genre drives this celebration, and with a whopping fourteen excerpts from ten different movement traditions, 2019’s edition was on point. It is indeed a special event, one that I hope OBC continues to curate and host for years to come.

Act I certainly lived into East Bay DANCES’ broad choreographic intention. From the charming patterns of American folk/square dance to emotionally charged contemporary works to percussive Middle Eastern dance forms to a modern ballet duet that challenged gender dynamics, the sheer variety was undeniable. There was something for every taste. And none of the pieces were overly lengthy, which meant that if something wasn’t your cup of tea, something new would be along in short order.

For me, two works stood out in East Bay DANCES’ first half. OBC brought a few sections from Oaktown Blues, a melding of music and movement that was part of their recent Jazz Vistas program. Sunday Kind of Love, a duet choreographed by Bat Abbit and danced by Sharon Kung and Lawrence Chen, absolutely captivated. The laid back, chill lyrical movement felt an embodiment of the Etta James’ ballad – circling torsos, cartwheeling limbs, sweeping lifts and turns, suspension and release. It was an interlude of pure, unhurried bliss. A contrasting, but equally compelling moment, came earlier in the act with Savage Jazz Dance Company’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, choreographed by Reginald Ray-Savage. Costumed in dark bodices and long black skirts, a collective of six women commanded the stage. Struggling motions abounded, as did angsty dynamics and an ominous use of breath. Hand splayed wide like a coven casting a spell. Impressive technique and artistry leapt from the stage: transitional clarity, strong positions, enviable extensions and extreme control.

Still more depth of genre and style was in store in East Bay DANCES’ second act: Dance Theater, Afro Contemporary, mixed media and the ever-dynamic, audience favorite Ballet Folklórico México Danza with their signature percussive rhythms and super human footwork patterns. Again, two of the offerings in this half felt particularly noteworthy. Marika Brussel brought her ballet duet Singing to the Grass (Meant for You), gorgeously interpreted by Mae Chesney and Nick Wagner. While an evocative, dramatic relationship definitely developed between the pair during the short pas de deux, it was the vocabulary itself that struck. Plenty of movements and steps would be classified as traditional ballet partnering. But Brussel also infused the unexpected into the syntax – lush parallel postures and abundant counterbalances that Chesney and Wagner had to work together to achieve. It felt a much more egalitarian approach to the classic ballet pas de deux. And a surprising moment emerged for me as East Bay DANCES neared its conclusion, Linda Steele II’s improvisation, {vyz}’d. What surprised me was how much I loved the composition, when improv is not usually a winner in my book. But Steele was phenomenal. Framed by a shattered light pattern projected onto the stage’s surface and a score overlaid with music and text, Steele moved from one place to another with certainty and strength. Carving out the space, every position was fueled with fortitude, pliability, precision and above all, connection. {vyz}’d was a long stream of riveting consciousness and Steele’s movement quality captured this viewer from the first second and never let go.   

No comments: