It has been a good fifteen years since I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the inside of Oakland’s Paramount Theatre, a veritable monument to the Art Deco era. For me on this Day of the Dead evening, it rattles with ghosts of the Buena Vista Social Club, one of the few Cuban performing groups to receive a U.S. visa back then, and an earlier iteration of Oakland Ballet, when under the lockstep direction of Karen Brown, the company performed a riveting version of José Limón’s “Moor’s Pavane.”
Tonight’s audience carried a more informal vibe into this treasured arts space. An infusion of young children and parents from the East Bay’s Latino community brought a modernist goth vibe to the jaunty setting, with many faces painted in ghostly white grease paint, black-lined to etch the skeleton of a dearly missed lost soul. Even with a late curtain, the air was rife with expectation as the show opened with a bilingual welcome from Oakland Ballet Artistic Director Graham Lustig (in English) and Oakland Museum Curator Evelyn Orantes (in Spanish). Both worked hard to make this audience feel at home not only with the dead they were commemorating but the ghosts of other cultures that have come and gone. Tucked into the warm welcome were inducements to return for a December Nutcracker run.
Ballet Folklorico Mexicano de Carlos Morena opened the program with “Jarabillo de Tres Pichatarito.” Two women in tiered dresses in a patchwork of brilliant plant-based hues ushered in about two dozen more dancers, women who performed traditional seguidillas, their dresses following the contoured lilt of the their bodies, and whose gentility invited a sturdy response in the form of a zapateado by men in black caballero cutaways, who hammered it home on a wooden platform. The selections ended with the hat dance, a little less frisky than one might have hoped for, but with the traditional reverse-heel steps all present and accounted for.
The sonorous Mariachi Halcones de Oakland offered “A Tribute to Juan Gabriel” in a medley of old favorites sung by three of its baritones. The lyrics met with instant recognition and approval from the audience, and just when it seemed that the music couldn’t go any more boisterous, the trumpets came in, as if aiming to blow the roof off the house. Each guitarist cradled a beloved instrument in the way that a guerrilla fighter embraces his rifle, and indeed, the songs felt like a fusillade of regret, unrequired love, and lost opportunity, as plaintive notes reached out to the last row in the nearly full house.
Oakland Ballet danced “Luna Mexicana,” by Graham Lustig. Alysia Chang opened the piece, her body folded around her spine, with back facing the audience. She’s a small dancer, dressed in canary yellow, who works large with a glittering presence. Similarly, Vincent Chávez delivers polished steps that unfortunately on a conceptual level, don’t look inspired or well-researched. Sadly, the tiny company is a skeletal echo of its former self, in need of committed attention to technique, and looking lost in a space that competes by drawing the eye to every detail of its interior design. This Day of the Dead brings the intentional wish to conjure up the ghost of the Karen Brown-led company and the distinguished Latin hauteur that Yoira Brito and Osmani García, who though Cuban and not Mexican, brought more than a decade ago to Limón’s signature piece.