Oakland Ballet Moves Forward 

With a new director and fresh direction, the dance company joins the art scene.

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Oakland has a taste for cutting-edge art, dance, and performance, so it stands to reason that Oakland Ballet's historical repertoire, though highly regarded for two generations, has kept the company out of the current scene. But Oakland Ballet has changed, and its spring season, titled FORWARDS!, is its contemporary calling card.

In new artistic director Graham Lustig, who came on board in 2010 to resuscitate the struggling company and who commutes from New Jersey to do so, Oakland Ballet has a determined and open-minded leader who's passionate about creativity in all its forms. (A former Royal Ballet dancer, he also has the classical chops to understand and respect the company's heritage.)

"We've got some wonderful talent in this community," Lustig said. "That's one of the reasons I'm here, to discover all these different artists." With a plethora of internationally recognized choreographers to choose from, Lustig opted to partner with two of the Bay Area's best: Sonya Delwaide, Mills College professor and 2010 Izzie Award winner, and Amy Seiwert, recognized as one of Dance magazine's "25 to Watch."

Lustig paired each choreographer with a local artist to help develop an interdisciplinary program that melds contemporary ballet, poetry, music, and art. Delwaide's collaboration with abstract printmaker Stephen Hayes on "..." was revelatory. "It was fabulous for me to have this exchange with this artist," she said. Delwaide gained fresh insights into her quirky, lighthearted duets, set to Mozart's fragile glass-harmonica melodies, and Hayes was awed by the dancers' translation of ideas into motion.

Seiwert will premiere her newly completed piece Response to Change, a five-part suite with music by DJ and composer Mason Bates. Her structured dances trace filigrees of movement that California College of the Arts student Carolyn Simon sought to capture in a handcrafted necklace.

Lustig himself contributes two pieces. Melodic piano by Philip Glass and a reading of Oakland poet Robert Duncan's "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" accompany wordswithinwords, which inspired photography by Karlya Benjamin. Vista, a sultry interpretation of jazz by John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards, led artist Marsha Balian to create a sculpture. All of the artworks will be on display at the show.

Clearly, Oakland Ballet has taken a considered step into the future. "We want to get people excited to be part of Oakland and say, 'We do art, we have culture. And we are contemporary,'" Delwaide said.

Lustig agreed in his own philosophical way: "No one needs dance. No one needs ballet. But our lives are improved by having the affinity and the ability to touch these arts in our lives."

Oakland Ballet performs Thursday and Friday, May 19-20, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, May 21, at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Laney College Theater (900 Fallon St., Oakland). $15-$38. 800-838-3006 or OaklandBallet.org

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