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Oakland Ballet: Not Your Typical Dance Company

Originally published in Piedmont Post, March 2018

With smart new restaurants and art galleries popping up almost daily, Oakland may well be the new Brooklyn. But there’s one area where Piedmont’s big neighbor does not have to play catch-up: ballet. For more than 53 years, The Oakland Ballet Company has been a staple of the East Bay cultural scene. The arrival of an internationally renowned dancer and artistic director Graham Lustig in 2010 signaled a new era for the company, with a revamped, community-centered repertoire, exciting new dancers and emphasis on deep audience engagement.

Lustig, once a dancer at the Dutch National Ballet, grew up studying various dance schools, from Russia’s Diaghilev Ballet to Basque flag dance, with many more in between. His passion for national dancing suffuses Oakland Ballet’s repertoire, making each production a riveting cultural exploration and an aesthetic experience. In 2016, after attending an exhibition in Mexico City, Lustig premiered Luna Mexicana, a dance celebration of the Day of the Dead. The critically-acclaimed ballet is now an annual Oakland tradition, and has been seen, among other ballet fans, by more than14,000 students.

Attracting younger audiences is a big part of Lustig’s artistic vision. “I want dance to be relevant,” says Lustig, “I want theatres to be part of the architecture of the young people’s lives.”

It is in the art deco hall of Oakland’s majestic Paramount Theatre, the Company’s winter venue, where thousands of young theatre goers experience ballet for the first time. For centuries, ballet has been an art form par excellence for the rich and famous. But Lustig doesn’t believe that love of ballet should come at a steep price: Oakland Ballet makes the exciting world of dance accessible and enticing for everyone.

Famous for creating international cultural journeys on stage, Lustig is also a masterful explorer of local themes. His highly successful premier of Oakland-esque in 2014 created an exhilarating dance portrait of the Oakland scene.

This spring, on March 10 and 13, at venues in Oakland and Castro Valley, the Oakland Ballet Company presents the Bay Area premiere of Jangala, a family-friendly performance inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The new production fuses contemporary ballet with movement vocabulary from the south Indian classical form, bharatanatyam. The dance follows the story of a lost boy, Mowgli, who is adopted by a pack of wolves and must use his wits to survive in the wild. Lustig has transplanted the action to a modern city, re-imagining the animal characters and their costumes for the urban jungle of contemporary India, complete with disco nightclubs, construction sites, and junkyards inhabited by feral dogs.

Like many of his productions, Jangala came out of Lustig’s passion: he had once performed in India and was taken by the bhangra-style dancing. “Dancing is an elevated art form in India,” Lustig says. “You can depict an animal with hand gestures. You can become a wolf. This type of dance lends itself easily to ballet, as so much of it relies on imagination.”

Jangala features 11 female and five male dancers, with the lead role of Mowgli danced by Sanchit Babbar, an alumnus of the Ailey School who was born and raised in New Delhi. The recorded music score mixes upbeat bhangra and Bollywood music with classical ragas and folkloric music from across India. The company is also joined by guest artist Nadhi Thekkek, who dances the role of Mowgli’s human mother, Messua. Thekkek’s Bay Area company, Nava Dance Theatre, will begin the performance with a newly commissioned narrative dance work in the bharatanatyam tradition, created especially for these performances and featuring live music. “It’s a lot of fun,” Lustig says. “Our dancers really look forward to share the show with the audience.”

For Lustig, the biggest reward in his work is the incredible, “truly magical” communication that happens between the audience and the stage. He recalls asking those attending one of the company’s winter Nutcracker shows to raise a hand if it was their first time at the Paramount: 2000 hands flew up. “There’s so much work that goes into every performance,” he says, “all of it very intriguing, stimulating, engaging. When I seat at the back of the theatre and see the whole show, see the audience engaged, I feel like a very lucky man for pulling that together.”

Like many smaller artistic institutions, Oakland Ballet Company does not have big a budget. “We have a small but engaged board,” Lustig says, “that allows us to take risks. New members who want to serve the arts and the community are always welcomed.” Once a year, on May 19th, Oakland Ballet Company holds its annual gala, their biggest fundraiser, where one can dance with the dancers and experience behind-the-scene magic of ballet.

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