Oakland Ballet’s Diaghilev Tribute

20 May

Rita Felciano, Claudia Baer and I attended the May 11 matinee of Oakland Ballet’s Diaghilev Imagery at the Malonga Casquelord Theatre, Alice Street in Oakland.  The venue itself is a surprising tribute to East Bay cultural interests in the ‘Twenties. A building devoted to women artists; it  provided both studios and residences at a time when the vote and non-domestic expressions for women were still novel and doubtless self-conscious.  It currently houses Dimensions Dance Theatre and a bevy of African-related dance groups rehearse and perform there as well as Axis Dance Company.  Early in its performing history Company C also utilized its 500 seat capacity.

Artistic Director Graham Lustig invited Amy Seiwert to reimagine Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Biches, created to the sprightly Francis Poulenc music. Moses was assigned Carl Maria Von Weber’s Invitation to the Waltz to reinvent Spectre de la Rose, Michael Fokine’s choreography for Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina.  The woman in this extended waltz conjures the image of the spirit of the rose, mingling it with her romantic inclinations towards a young man she met at a ball.

Seiwart made no attempt to deviate from Nijinska’s original libretto if she did soften it by rendering the two male athletes as partners to the two young girls with the hostess having a lover deserting her for the Girl in Orange, said female originally The Girl in Blue.  This deviation in the plot gives rise to a wonderful pas de trois of the hostess with the two men.  The sofa remains, a screen and a closet has been added, both hinting at possible deviation from the  display of heterosexual pairing.

As The Hostess Emily Kerr had the opportunity to display her lithe body before donning a blue dress and that rope of pearls, and Sharon Wehner’s Girl in Orange displayed her share of moxie with nimble pointe phrases sharply accented and executed.  Bryan Ketron as the unreliable lover of the hostess delivered some of the crispest pirouettes in Seiwart’s reinterpretation.  I think Seiwart did well, considering the indelible sarcasm  with which Nijinska mocked affluent French society in the mid-Twenties. Seiwart is innately gentler.

Robert Moses was handed the most difficult possible assignment; trying to reinterpret a ballet which Fokine fashioned for Vaslav  Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina.  Moses naturally wanted to modernize it, calling it Bloom; one can’t blame him for that.  But to the lush 19th century waltz, Moses  expected two shoeless dancers to evoke the perfume of a dream demanding floating, aerial movement.  To compensate, Moses relied on his amazing capacity for arm movement at the expense of partnering. “We applied my working process to the traditional choreographic and musical structure. In doing so we applied equity to the roles, shifted the ballet and added a layered lexicon. Connie’s costume design is simple and reflects an updated sense of the male/female idea…in her dream she has power, agency and desire on which she acts.  In her dream he is more than a fantasy.”

The costume in question was a skimpy, short white tunic of stretch fabric worn by Ramona Kelley; Vincent Chavez was nude to the waist and wearing jeans.  Partnering was minimal. Lifts were almost non existent and could have contrasted clearly with Fokine’s still traditional choreographic approach. (Manuel Legris can be seen on You Tube in the original and displays a 19th century approach to partnering.) Where was the lexicon? I simply did not feel Moses’ statement and the dancing cohered,

Finally, Graham Lustig undertook Igor Stravinksy’s Pulcinella Suite, taken from Pergolesi manuscripts, and a tale linked to the Italian commedia dell ‘arte tradition.  Because the dancers appeared masked, the plot was displayed on a board in front of the top of the curtain and its ins and outs conveyed the sense of commedia dell arte, although the historic work choreographed by Leonide Massine never remained in the Ballets Russes repertoire.

Two young girls, Prudenza and Rosetta, are enamored of Pulcinella, a street artist who is dressed in flowing white shirt and trousers with huge black buttons and peaked white hat.  Florindo and Cliovelio, their ardent suitors, have a hard time, until they decide to disguise themselves in Pulcinella attire, inspiring success with the two young maidens. Their disguise enrages Pimpinella with Pulcinella who has to feign death to be reunited with her. The Doctor and his wife are part of the action and a dithering Dame Diamentini.

Naturally this is all very tongue in cheek, enhanced by masks and the narrative board;  the sense of confusion, plot and counter plot are pretty apparent. With lively music, Pulcinella made for an excellent closer.  As Pulcinella Gregory De Santis showed promise, but needs to prune his energies and sharpen his portrayal.  In general there was a feeling of frothy white with ruffles and busyness, where posture and precision could emphasize the wit more cogently.  I think the original costumes were sufficiently heavy that the froth had to be provided by the characterization.  It was evident, however, Lustig knew the tradition thoroughly.

One interesting note was the name of Michael Levine listed as an understudy.  With career credits chronicling staggering experience one wonders why he wasn’t at least featured in Pulcinella.

In utilizing the Casquelord Auditorium for it spring season, Oakland Ballet may have solved its problem of  venue size and cost.  One hopes it settles in to the space for other seasons.

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