A bow to the past to build the company’s future

As Oakland Ballet Company looks ahead to its annual gala this Saturday, officially launching its spring season, much has gone into making this a landmark year – and start of a new era – for the 48-year-old institution.

For signs that the company is turning a new page, look no further than the attention it received from the Jerome Robbins Foundation earlier this year.

A $20,000 matching grant from the foundation’s New Essential Works (NEW) Program was awarded to the company to support production of Amy Seiwert’s ballet in Diaghilev Imagery, OBC’s spring production.

That kind of national recognition was just the boost needed for a production designed as a tribute to a local legacy.

"Pulcinella" by Artistic Director Graham Lustig makes its West Coast debut in OBC's spring production, "Diaghilev Imagery." Photo by by Ron Lessard.

“Pulcinella” by Artistic Director Graham Lustig makes its West Coast debut in OBC’s spring production, “Diaghilev Imagery.” Photo by Ron Lessard.

Diaghilev Imagery was originally scheduled for spring 2012. After financial difficulties put the premiere on hold, word about the delay and descriptions of the ballet started to travel east and reached NEW Program Director Damian Woetzel in New York.

With its lineup of three original works by three different choreographers, and a call to commission two world premieres, Diaghilev Imagery aligned with the mission of the recently formed NEW Program on several fronts.

“The NEW Program was designed for two reasons,” said Woetzel, who reviewed the program’s origins, in 2009, as a response to the conditions of the tightened economy.

In times of cutbacks, the arts are often one of the first to feel the impact, as budgets get trimmed. To help sustain dance during the foreseen downturn, Woetzel said, the Jerome Robbins Foundation added the NEW Program to its list of grants.

“We realized that it would be harder for companies and choreographers to get the support that they usually do,” Woetzel said.

And when funding drops, Woetzel continued, assistance for staging new, untested work becomes particularly difficult to secure.

By designing a grant that focused on the production of new works, the foundation hoped to help companies weather the current economic climate and contribute to the long-term vitality of dance as an art.

“We believe in promoting new choreography as critical to making dance thrive,” Woetzel said of the program’s mission.

Part of the appeal of Diaghilev Imagery, he added, was its artistic diversity. The fact that the ballet brought in guest choreographers Amy Seiwert and Robert Moses to stage new repertory matched the foundation’s goal of exposing new choreographers and audiences to each other.

The inspiration behind Diaghilev Imagery
According to Woetzel, he spoke with OBC Artistic Director Graham Lustig by phone to learn more about the pieces Seiwert and Moses would create.

In building the concept for Diaghilev Imagery, Lustig approached Seiwert and Moses with proposals to give their modern interpretations of choreography from the Sergei Diaghilev era of the Ballets Russes.

Lustig describes his goal for Diaghilev Imagery as a chance to add to the company’s tradition. OBC built its early reputation, and later gained international recognition, with its recovery and reconstruction of the Diaghilev repertoire. Some of the company’s restagings, such as choreography by Bronislava Nijinska, were the first ever in the United States.

In bringing Seiwert and Moses to the project, Lustig hoped to renew the choreographers’ relationships with the company and pay tribute to founder Ronn Guidi, who made the promotion of local and emerging artists a pillar of the company.

For Seiwert, Lustig pitched Nijinska’s 1924 Les Biches. OBC previously presented the original choreography in a 1982 production.

Nijinska was ballet mistress and chief choreographer of the Ballets Russes from 1921 to 1924, holding a rare post for women. In today’s ballet world, female choreographers remain few and far between. How Seiwert, who has steadily gained notice since 1999, would approach the same themes as Nijinska, nine decades later, would be intriguing, Lustig said.

For Moses, Lustig proposed Michel Fokine’s 1911 Le Spectre de la Rose. Unlike Les Biches, which has survived with its original choreography intact, little is known about Le Spectre de la Rose outside of Fokine’s premise for the pas de deux. Moses would draw from a much blanker slate than Seiwert in re-imagining the piece.

The final ballet of Diaghilev Imagery, Lustig’s own Pulcinella, had its world premiere in 2011 at New Jersey’s Princeton Festival and will make its West Coast debut in May. After discussing with Woetzel what would be involved in mounting Diaghilev Imagery’s two new works, Lustig and Woetzel settled on Seiwert’s production to receive the NEW Program grant.

Spring 2013 and beyond
With the announcement of the Jerome Robbins Foundation matching grant to ride on top of momentum from the successful production run of Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker, new energy carried over into the spring season.

“Oakland Ballet Company is extremely honored to have received the prestigious Jerome Robbins Foundation award,” said OBC Board Chair and President Roz Perazzo.

The NEW Program awards its grants without an application process. All grant recipients are nominated by a panel led by Woetzel and the directors of the Jerome Robbins Foundation, raising the distinction of the grant’s recognition.

In receiving this year’s grant, OBC has become only the second California dance company to be distinguished by the NEW Program. Sacramento Ballet received a grant in 2009, the program’s founding year.

Beyond the support it offers to Diaghilev Imagery, the grant has done much to help raise awareness and build confidence for OBC within the community.

“It is wonderful to receive gifts of all amounts coming in from not only our regular list of contributors but new friends of the Oakland Ballet Company,” said Perazzo.

Part of the intention behind awarding a matching grant, rather than outright funds, is the publicity element, Woetzel said. The grant becomes a tool for companies to reach out to their communities and encourage local interest and support.

Given what OBC has achieved in the past year, and what appears to be on the company’s horizon, Saturday’s gala seems aptly themed with its event name Imagine!

– Kate Fratar

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For more information about OBC’s annual spring gala, visit the event’s webpage at OaklandBallet.org. Tickets are available for purchase online for $100 for individual tickets and $250 for platinum tickets. 

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