Tag Archives: Francis Poulenc

Oakland Celebrates A Half Century

2 Jun

A 4 p.m. curtain May 23 at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre was preceded by a series of still images from its memorable repertoire, few unfamiliar. Three were missing, belonging to its inaugural season reminding me of the courage and freshness of the company’s original vision Ronn Guidi hewed to during his tenure as artistic director. The audience included a near who’s who of dancers long associated with the mid to late twentieth century ballet world, their numbers almost bringing tears to my eyes. And as part of the opening, Graham Lustig both on video and in person did the company proud while Joanna Harris remarked that Ronn Guidi not only brought twentieth century ballet incons to the Paramount Theatre, he reintroduced narrative to audiences exposed to balletic abstraction. Further Lustig mounted not only ballet icons excerpts but in the second half gave the Bay Area choreographers who contributed to Oakland’s repertoire their due. The Diaghilev era snippets, familiar to long-time balletomanes, may have seemed strange to ballet-goers whose exposure dates from the first years of the twenty-first century. The dancers were young, eager, willing but as yet unfamiliar with the style and nuance needed to burnish  assignments; hopefully that will emerge if the works are remounted. The second half of the program saw them at their best. Lustig adroitly programed Ronn Guidi’s Secret Garden pas de deux for the ill-fated parents as the opening of the retrospective, danced by Sharon Wehner and Taurean Green, and followed by the frivolous pas de deux from the Bronislava Nijinska-Darius Milhaud-Chanel production of Le Train Bleu with Megan Terry and Sean Omandam cavorting in the Chanel-copies of Twenties beach wear. The Hostess solo in Les Biches was danced by Lydia McRae in that witty satire of Riviera louche behavior choreographed by Nijinska to the music of Francis Poulenc and was followed by the Can-Can from La Boutique Fantasque of Leonide Massine to Ottorino Respighi’s arrangement of Gioachhino Rossini music, with Daphne Lee and Tyler Rhoads essaying the roles created by Massine and Lydia Lopokhova. The elegaic solo from the Michel Fokine-Igor Stravinsky Petrouchka was interpreted by Evan Flood with a brief appearance by Patience Gordon as the Ballerina. It was followed by the one-time torrid pas de deux from Michel Fokine’s Scheherazade danced by Alysia Chang as Zobeide and Michael Crawford.as the Slave. The final two excerpts before intermission were Billy’s Solo from the Eugene Loring–Aaron Copland classic Billy the Kid, effectively interpreted by Gabriel Williams and Claude Debussy’s L’Apres Midi D’un Faune as reconstructed by Ann Hutchinson. Matthew Roberts was the Faun, Emily Kerr as the Chief Nymph. The program notes were quite detailed and included more nymphs than I remembered. The second half of the Oakland Ballet’s Gala comprised eight dances, six premieres. Amy Seiwart’s Before It Begins used Antonio Vivaldi’s Violin, Strings and Harpsichord for her quintet with Alysia chang, Daphne Lee, Lydia McRae, Taurean /Green and Sean Omandam. Seiwart’s overt classicism was followed by Michael Lowe’s trio featuring Megan Terry, Sharon Wehner and Evan Flood in a Mongolian-inspired theme by JigJiddorj. N with an instrument known in the West as Horse Head Fiddle. Flood was garbed in Asian-type garments, dancing frequent frontal grand jetes, softened by flowing sleeves and trousers. Betsy Erickson, who has served as ballet mistress for the Oakland Company for seven and a half years, chose Marjan Mozetch’s Postcards from the Sky music for A Moment- A Lifetime, interpreted by Emily Kerr and Taurean Green Erickson’s contribution was followed by the 1976 production of Carlos Carvajal’s mounting of Green to music of the same name by Toru Takamitsu originally choreographed in 1974 for his ensemble Dance Spectrum. Here danced by Patience Gordon, Lydia McRae and Michael Crawford, it demonstrated the Carvajal capacity for abstraction and use of unusual scores. Robert Moses’ Untitled revealed his ability to choreograph to classical music with Roy Bogas’ rendition of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No.3, danced by Emily Kerr and Matthew Roberts, as sensitive and lyrical as one would wish. Nine dancers danced Graham Lustig’s contribution, Luminaire to the joint composition November by Max Richter and Alexander Balanescu. The dancers were Alysia Chang, Patience Gordon, Daphne Lee, Megan Terry, Sharon Wehner, Evan Flood, Taurean Green, Sean Omandam and Tyler Rhoads. The 1999 Alonzo King contribution to Oakland’s repertoire, Love Dogs, with music by Francis Poulenc, featured Lydia McRae and Michael Crawford, with King’s characteristic expanded nuances in partnering and individual torso accents. It was followed by Val Caniparoli’s Das Ballett. set to Leopold Mozart’s Toy Symphony, a lively sextette with Alysia Change, Daphne Lee, Sharon Wehner, Sean Omandam, Tyler Roads, and Matthew Roberts, an adroitly festive finale to this fiftieth Oakland Ballet celebration. Two thoughts struck me about this laudable undertaking. One is the fervent hope that the supporters of the occasion will continue contributing to the company’s funding, allowing Lustig additional time to refine the willing dancers who reflect excellent training, but need time and exposure to polish their craft. The second is Karen Brown’s statement in the gala program regarding company member composition. True, Oakland now possesses a 30 per cent complement of African Americans, but they are not and have never been the only minority whose careers Oakland fostered and supported. Asian-American dancers were developed in pre-Brown company years. Carolyn Goto, Joy Gim and Michael Lowe were just a few of those dancing under the Guidi aegis. Further, early on, Judy Titus left Oakland to join Dance Theatre of Harlem where she, like Brown, enjoyed principal status. Omar Shabazz also was a local dancer.Both dancers, I might add, were fostered by Ronn Guidi; Brown’s comments do not acknowledge the considerable change not only in opportunity but in social climate, when few African Americans ventured into the classical classroom.  Guidi fostered anyone truly  interested. Finally, I want to comment not only on the completeness and the generosity of spirit reflected in the program, but to identify two, possibly three, dances I remember well. One was The Proposal of Pantalone by Angene Feves, Associate Artistic Director of the company for the first year or two. Usingivaldi viol de gamba recordings, Feves’ graduating thesis From San Francisco State University involved commedia del arte characters and her extraordinary skills as a seamstress, providing a ballet of wit and panache unhappily lost to history. Angene and Ronn danced Brighella and Harlequin and a young fourteen-year old named Anita Paciotti made a ravishing young Italian whom Pantalone wanted to marry off for a healthy sum. There was a modern work by Nancy Feragallo, name forgotten, but her name was associated with the set designer for San Francisco’s Contemporary Dancers, led by Jay No Period Marks, and husband, Roger Feragallo. Somewhere a review with my byline lies in an issue of Thought magazine, published in New Delhi. There also was a work to Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain in which Debbie Hesse remembers dancing in opaque oblong ghostly garments, all sizes essaying jetes and cartwheels across the stage in orderly abandon. It is such a pity the three works faded in to obscurity save in the minds of those who danced and who saw and remembered.

Historical Interlude

7 Jul

Anything about Paris – history, memoir, map – is a magnet for me, even though I’ve spent only three brief visits to The City of Light. Browser Books on the west side of Fillmore just before the #1 California bus stop on Sacramento, San Francisco, carries a fair amount of reading enticements. I want to mention one, just finished, because of its unexpected foray into dance history – the Diaghilev Era.

Specifically, the book is Paris at the End of the World; The City of Light During the Great War, 1914-1918, paperback, $15.99, ISBN #978-0-06-222140-7. The author, John Baxter, is Australian, a long-time resident married to a French woman, Dominique by name. He also has authored several other books on Paris, also biographies of several noted cinematographers.

Baxter was interested in World War I because his grandfather, Archie, volunteered for replacement Australian forces in 1916. The circumstances of the enlistment, his return, and later abandonment of the Baxter family became a trigger for his grandson’s tracing his steps in the Parisian world of the time. Each short chapter manages to capture vividly a sense of the times, a paperback to finish in as non-stop as daily routine permits.

I harbored a more personal interest in wartime Paris, also. Beyond the fact that my father joined the Canadian artillery as a replacement, also in 1916, a fact and resulting ambiance that hovered around the family during most of my childhood, I wrote about Josephine Redding, a young American volunteer nurse during the first year of the war, who died in a New York hotel room in 1915. Her diary provided perspective and fuel for Baxter’s descriptions.

Several years ago, I registered that Diaghilev premiered Leonid Massine’s Parade in Paris in 1917, and that World War I was still being fought not so very far away from Paris, some forty miles in fact. This information both thrilled and gave me a shudder. The Russian Revolution had started in February with the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and the effective loss of Russians fighting as the Communists endeavors to solidify their control of the former Russian empire.

On pages 217-219, Baxter records Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso’s trip made to Rome to pitch the idea of Paradeto Serge Diaghilev. True to his dictum, Etonne moi, “Astonish me”, Diaghilev bought the idea of a ballet roughly based on a traveling circus.

Chapter 31, “I Love a Parade,” pages 289-299, tells the story of the production. It has just about everything to qualify it for a zany Marx brothers feature; I think it’s safe to say it introduced the particular form of social chaos that came to be known as The Roaring Twenties.

For starters, this is the first account I have read placing Parade’s premiere at the Theatre du Chatelet in the afternoon; it was a charity matinee, wartime conditions ruling electricity and public transportation, even the number of times a theater could be open for performances. The 3K sized venue was jammed, thanks not only to Cocteau and Picasso, but also to Erik Satie; he was morose when horns and jostling milk bottles were added for effect.

The work was startling; Massine had incorporated ragtime, the cakewalk and the “one-step”, placing them on stage with a company noted for oriental exoticism,” Russian folk and fairytales. Anyone seeing Gary Chryst in the Joffrey Ballet’s revival understands some of the impact. Francis Poulenc was shocked and the music critics slammed the production. Cocteau was delighted; he had created a scandale to rival Sacre du Printemps. With the rumor that in certain loges love-making occurred during the performance, Baxter concluded the chapter, “It really was the hottest ticket in town.”

Draw your own examples in the contemporary dance world.

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.