A Leap into the Unknown

Oakland Ballet is reborn under founding artistic director Ronn Guidi, but can he make it last?

How good must it be? That’s a key question to ask of the reborn Oakland Ballet — whether it can create a solid, lasting ensemble and really get its act together for the upcoming repertory shows at the Paramount on October 20, its grand reintroduction to local society. It’s also key to the company’s long-term survival, given that it will never have the big budgets of its San Francisco counterpart, and will always likely be experiencing one crisis or another.

Can we dare to hope that the Oakland Ballet will again provide the community something as valuable as its irrefutably great work of the 1980s — an era in which it staged powerful revivals of forgotten works which were celebrated from here to New York?

That would be wonderful. But a successful ballet requires many factors to fall into place — you need the right artists, the training, rehearsal space and time, moneyed supporters, willing fans, and a cooperative economy. Certainly it would be a challenge for the company founding director Ronn Guidi is assembling, with the help of his former dancers and the big-time backing of local oil giant Chevron, to quickly develop the compelling, honest connection with the audience that the old company had.

Karen Brown, the director who took over in 2000 after Guidi was diagnosed with cancer, tried to jazz up the company’s style — which might have worked eventually but didn’t catch on fast enough to keep the ballet out of debt. The results were choppy and uncertain; smothered by debt, the company eventually scrapped its fall season in 2004, and shut down in 2006 after a failed comeback.

Illness may not have been the only reason for Guidi’s hiatus. Among other things, he was known for a paternalistic style that grated against modern arts management, and had trouble staying within his budgets. Regardless, the director is feeling strong once again, and hopes to return the company to its glory days.

A couple of weeks ago he sat on his stool in the corner of the Oakland Ballet Academy on MacArthur Boulevard in the Fruitvale, auditioning new dancers. Some twenty long-legged women and a couple of men sprawled on the floor in splits as Guidi hit a button on the CD player and the luscious sound of Debussy’s The Afternoon of a Faun filled the room. The dancers sank farther into their stretches as Guidi explained what he wanted and hoped for from them.

“The secret is in the repertory,” Guidi confided to a visitor. “Dancers want to perform great ballets. They find something within themselves and deliver it, and the audience feels that. It’s what I want to be doing with the rest of my life.”

Guidi grew up in this part of town, an Italian-American working-class kid who sees nothing elitist about bringing ballet to the people, and in particular to Oakland. As far as he’s concerned, there’s plenty of there there. Laurel Elementary, Oakland High, the dance classes from youth on up — Guidi recollected his life in dance even as he put the hopefuls through some difficult drills. He seeks out dancers with his kind of commitment to a life in art. “Don’t worry about your technique,” he told them. “I want to see how you move. I need to see who you are.”

Oakland Ballet historically specialized in old-fashioned ballets full of conflict, passion, strong emotions, and heroic gestures, where actions and posture tell the story without words. The tragedies of Billy the Kid (American outlaw), Lizzie Borden (axe murderer), and Giselle, the peasant girl who is seduced by a callow local aristocrat and dies when she realizes she’s been betrayed, can perhaps be told better through pure movement than they ever could be in dialogue — back in the ’80s Oakland Ballet gave weight and feeling to great realizations of these archetypal visionary stories.

Much rides on the first show, which seems well planned to win over the audience. For Mark Wilde’s Bolero, all the dancers have to do is be themselves, dance to Ravel’s overwhelmingly exciting music, and perform their fanciest stunts as though they’ve never been more alive than at that moment. If they can do it, and if they’re enjoying it, it’ll be difficult not to be on their side.

The music, to be performed live by members of the Oakland East Bay Symphony with Michael Morgan conducting, is all French, all charming, all seductive. Indeed, both Bolero and Afternoon of a Faun could be construed as orgasmic — Faun, the famous Vaslav Nijinsky ballet of 1912, caused a scandal at its opening night in Paris when, at the finale, he simulated ejaculation and then collapsed. Search YouTube for “Nijinsky Faune” and you’ll find two versions: This is the only one with dignity, or that’s really hot.

The rest of the program is vintage Guidi: Carnival d’Aix, a bawdy romp set to Darius Milhaud’s quirky score from 1927, and a trio danced to Erik Satie’s haunting Trois Gymnopédies. The latter is a poem of ecstasy in which the dancers look as if they’re moving underwater in slow motion. It’s Guidi’s first great choreographic success, from 1966, and it’s indeed very 1960s — full of innocent sensuality and hope.

The company also is projecting a series of Nutcracker productions around Christmas, which have a fair chance of success, being the ballet’s traditional moneymakers. Guidi’s Nutcracker is drenched in nostalgia — it’s a little lumpy, with unexplained outbreaks of pure dancing in scenes where it doesn’t belong. But the whole evening is emotionally coherent, steeped in longing for idealized, old-fashioned home life, and for that time in youth when sexual feelings are first arising and the sense of a whole new world of emotions is just dawning. It’s not as polished as the San Francisco Ballet’s big annual production, but SF’s Nutcracker has been so sharply remade to remove the corniness that it has ended up overscrubbed, and not Christmassy enough.

The East Bay can only hope that a revived Oakland Ballet will prove a holiday present that endures. And with luck, talent, and hard work, perhaps it just might.

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