Rudyard Kipling’s name is eponymous. His “White Man’s Burden” lament has served as
a sanctimonious apologia for centuries of imperial rape and pillage on foreign
soil. Kipling is also the author of “The Jungle Book,” a children’s cautionary
tale that superimposes nineteenth century mores on anthropomorphized animal
characters. This less than sanguine provenance of Oakland Ballet’s title
program is relieved of some of its latter day guilt burden by what some insist
is “cultural appropriation,” but what others soberly recognize as “culture.”
“Jangala,” is a giddily inventive program pairing artists of the company with those of Nava Dance Theatre, an Indian ensemble led by Artistic Director, Nadhi Thekkek. If the elephant in the room staring us down is actually a gaping moral blind spot, there is still much to be said in favor of bringing the two companies together in a program in which Caucasian dancers number few, and choreography reaches earnestly for world dance authority, finds common ground, and leverages a jubilee.
Though sturdily committed to good works rarely shown elsewhere, Oakland Ballet has also weathered a history rife with strife since its founding in 1965. It all but disappeared for a few seasons in the naughts, but today, under Royal Ballet’s former dancer Graham Lustig’s mindful stewardship, it has come back, alive and kicking. The company gins a youthful resilience nurtured by a conscientious awareness of its broad-based public. Under Lustig’s watch, its endowment has doubled, though a full-time staff of three stretches to its limits in order to bring performances to 26,000 students per year, not only in Oakland, but in the farther reaches of California, where viewing men in tights is still a novelty.
The first two pieces on the matinee program were “Rajavastra: The King’s Cloth,” inspired by the tale we know as Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and “Hamsa,” [Swan] inspired by recently-deceased poet Mary Oliver’s poem “The Swan,” and excerpts from the “Gitanjali,” by Rabindranath Tagore. Both pieces are world premieres, choreographed by Thekkek and Shruti Abhishek. Using stylized Indian poses, dancers in well-tended diagonal semi-cannons, work with knees bent, except when one flexed-heel foot juts forward to send out shimmering joy, punctuated by loud stamps. This reprise of Oakland Ballet demonstrates that you can accomplish bite-sized miracles on a small budget if you use voiceover and repurposed objects, such as corrugated aluminum siding scraps, and depend heavily on six very talented young musicians to create a mood, as they play sitars and small drums. In “Rajastra,” dancers Thekkek, Vertika Srivastiva, Lalli Venkat, and Aishwarya Subramanian, bright-eyed and bearing knowing smiles, are so well rehearsed that they practically finish one another’s visual sentences.
In “Hamsa,” they intersect with Oakland’s Landes Dixon, Samantha Bell, Christopher Dunn, Sharon Kung, Constanza Murphy, Brandon Perez, and Jazmine Quezada. There’s an armful of white blossoms that has an echo in the white tunics and leggings the dancers wear. A male dancer and three women intertwine, not unlike in George Balanchine’s “Apollon Musagete.” Samantha Bell’s arms are as willowy as white blossoms when she partners with Landes Dixon, whose star power is loosed in beat by beat concentration, sensibility and exhilaration. He is fully present in his role, whether he’s on one leg in en dehors arabesque turns or traversing the floor on his knees. The company boasts three excellent men: Dixon, Christopher Dunn, and Brandon Perez. They are joined in their shape-making by Kung, Murphy, and Quezada
“Jangala” begins with a common trope that choreographers now use to reflect our alienated behavior back to us: Dancers in black costumes cross each other’s bows, as they fixate on lit-up cell-phones. It’s the staged urban rat race crawl.
Mowgli, danced by Perez, is delightful, as he frolics with the animals to a sitar solo. Bell gives us a slightly malevolent Shere Khan, in red from head to ankle. She wears pointe shoes, using them to italicize an array of feline poses that lean into the character’s scheming edge. When she’s not doing bourrée on the prod, she is dancing on flat. This can render the pointe shoes either redundant or weapon-like. Bell’s presence can fill a stage. What a treat it would be to see her dance more en pointe in this role!
Wolves arrive under a canopy of cacophonous animal screeches, howls, and growls. Then come the Bandar-Log (Monkeys) dressed in red and black. Led by Dunn, they dance a full-out spectacle number that should be called “Bollywood in the Jungle.” What could be a more culturally appropriate riposte to the white man’s burden? They come on scooters, by foot, and carry what at first look like Sleeping Beauty’s garlands, but when set down, turn out to be trampolines. A dancer to watch is coryphée Nina Pearlman, whose nuclear level chi, timing, and musicality, fire her bounding from one point to the next, and then shinnying up onto a Pilates table, where, with Terra Liu, she manages the entire menagerie!
In a transient small dance company culture of “here today, gone tomorrow,” Oakland Ballet has ironically reconnected with its earlier staying power, fueled in 2019 by an insightful artistic director and the collective imagination of its dancers, and the artists it chooses to collaborate with.