OBC kicks off 40th Nutcracker season

A little ballet can make the holidays a whole lot brighter.

Skies cleared just in time for OBC this past weekend, a small and early bit of holiday good fortune, as the company kicked off its 40th Nutcracker season with the start of an extended schedule of community events.

Oakland Ballet Company members and student dancers were part of the festivities at the Jack London Square tree lighting on November 30 and at the 13th annual Oakland holiday parade on December 1, as they shared the year’s first glimpses of Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker with merry crowds.

“I’m delighted to be part of community events,” said Artistic Director Graham Lustig at the tree lighting.

Jack London Square tree lighting

The audience at Jack London Square. Photo by Kate Fratar

The evening was the first of 10 holiday outings for the company leading up to its production of Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker at the Paramount Theatre during Christmas Eve weekend.

Friday featured a performance of the climatic grand pas de deux, with OBC dancers Bobby Briscoe as the Cavalier and Jackie McConnell as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

“There was a lot of stuff going on, and then everyone started to focus on the stage,” recalled McConnell.

“It’s amazing how much we were able to save and perform,” added Mr. Lustig, who was on hand to help McConnell and Briscoe make final adjustments before taking the stage.

With choreography meant to take up every inch of the 50-foot-wide stage at the Paramount Theatre, McConnell and Briscoe rehearsed with Mr. Lustig earlier in the week to fit the piece to the smaller dimensions available at Jack London Square.

“Sometimes we had to go backwards when usually we go forwards,” McConnell laughed after the show. McConnell has been a part of Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker since it was first performed by OBC in 2010.

Her biggest challenge from the choreography changes on Friday night was finding possible alternatives for the lifts with dance partner Briscoe. The crossbars to the stage’s tent covering limited what she and the rather tall Briscoe could do, especially at times when McConnell was meant to pose with an outstretched arm.

In the end, many of the big lifts were swapped out for turns, but even with the changes, Briscoe and

Jack London Square tree lighting

Bobby Briscoe, Graham Lustig, and Jackie McConnell with Santa Claus. Photo courtesy of Jackie McConnell.

McConnell managed to capture their characters and “communicated really well with the audience,” Mr. Lustig said. “More and more people stopped to watch them.”

“Tonight was definitely a lot of fun,” said Briscoe, who is in his first production of Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker with OBC this season and also dances with Company C Contemporary Ballet in Walnut Creek. “I liked being able to look out and see people looked stunned.”

That kind of intimacy with the audience, Mr. Lustig agreed, is one of the things that make OBC’s appearances at local events a rewarding experience.

As much as people enjoyed the performance by the professionals, the costumed student dancers proved to be big crowd favorites at both the tree lighting and the parade the next day.

Snowballs Shoshi Black, Barbara Rickman, and Alexis Scott posed for photos at the tree lighting and Bonbon Danica Adams drew smiles and big cheers from parade watchers.

The America’s Children’s Holiday Parade in downtown Oakland is a city tradition born with the Millennium. New company members Cole Companion, Cameron Findley, and Jessica Woodman were on a float for OBC this year as the Rat King, the Nutcracker, and the Sugar Plum Fairy.

For Woodman, the most important part to wearing the Sugar Plum tiara is being friendly to all, but especially to children, who feel a much stronger connection to the costumed dancers when seeing them face to face rather than on stage.

“The kids seem to think it was more real being close to the characters,” Woodman observed. “It was definitely apparent with the kids who were five and younger. They would get really happy when they saw Nutcracker or Sugar Plum but would then get scared when they saw the Rat King.”

With many more community events on the horizon, starting with several preview performances on December 7 at the Oakland City Center tree lighting and at Art Murmur’s First Friday Art Walk, there will be plenty more opportunities to get a close look at the dancers and characters who bring the story of Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker to life.

Kate Fratar

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