When the Oakland Ballet company members arrived in the Virgin Islands on Thursday, Jan. 13, for performances Saturday on St. Thomas and Sunday on St. Croix, they brought with them a kind of baggage that takes up no space but carries a great deal of weight: a tradition of preserving and creating dance history, a commitment to community outreach, and a track record of doing both well.
Throughout its 34-year history, Oakland Ballet has been known for its historical reconstruction of important ballets from the early 20th Century repertoire of Serge Diaghilev's legendary Ballets Russes and classic American works, as well as for its attention to innovative contemporary choreography. Until last year, the company was under the artistic direction of a Oakland native Ronn Guidi, who founded it in 1965 and also started the Oakland Ballet Academy, a separate training institution.
"He was a teacher before he was the ballet company director," says Joral Schmalle, who began dancing with the company 17 years ago at the age of 14 and was its associate artistic director when Guidi retired to emeritus status a year ago.
As the ballet board of directors undertook the formal search for a successor to Guidi, it named Schmalle acting artistic director for a one-year period — and then last fall extended his contract through this March. While hoping to be the board's choice for the permanent position, he has assumed an active leadership role in his interim capacity.
Noting that Jerry Brown became mayor of Oakland a year ago, Schmalle recalls that the former California governor campaigned for the city post on a four-part platform of "reducing crime, improving education, attracting 10,000 people to move to downtown Oakland to live, and increasing the city's emphasis on arts and culture." The dance administrator makes the argument that Oakland Ballet, with its studio in the downtown area, supports all four goals.
Schmalle says his artistic director's point of view is that "dance is not just the steps; it's the intention behind the steps. Learning the steps is just the first part of telling the story." Because of this perspective and the fact that the choreography of Ballanchine is not a mainstay of the company's repertoire, he says, dancers who join the company "will either like it and stay, or say ‘This is not for me' and go." Many, like him, have stayed — some until reaching retirement.
The touring company that will perform here consists of five male and five female dancers. Schmalle points out that Oakland Ballet has partnered with sports figures in "acknowledging that ballet is a very physical discipline," taking part in a sports medicine clinic in Oakland, for example, and involving celebrity sports figures as special guests in the company's annual productions of "The Nutcracker."
Schmalle readily acknowledges that the main reason the company has made the long journey from its home in San Francisco's Bay Area to do two performances in the territory is that its new executive director, as of last June, is Renee Heider.
Before taking the position, Heider was for three years the production and grants coordinator at the Reichhold Center, as well as a member of the board of the Birch Forum, which is underwriting the company's St. Thomas performance. Although she had expected to travel to the islands for this visit, she was unable to make the trip due to a bout with the flu, Schmalle said.
The program for both performances consists of six works, all to recorded music:
– "Gallops & Kisses," choreographed by Ronn Guidi, a contemporary work for eight dancers about 24 minutes in length. Schmalle describes the work as "lots of jumps and turns," in the dance style of Danish-born 19th Century choreographer Auguste Bournonville, "that is fun but difficult; we always end up winded and sweating."
– Solo and pas de deux from "Billy the Kid," choreographed by Eugene Loring to the mid-20th Century classic American West music of Aaron Copland.
"Trois Gymnopedies," a work (of debated translation) choreographed by Guidi to the music of unconventional French Impressionist composer Erik Satie, consisting of two pas de deux movements involving a male dancer and different partners, then all three of them together. "This is the most neoclassical piece, done in white leotards with slow adagio movements and melodious music," Schmalle says.
– Solo from "Le Corsaire," showcasing the awesome leaps of the pirate hero, choreographed by Marius Petipa, the French-born 19th Century "father of classical ballet" who danced with and later was premier ballet master of Russia's Imperial Theatre of St. Petersburg. Petipa danced the role then later rechoreographed the ballet.
Pas de deux from "Secret Garden," a ballet based on a 1909 children's classic choreographed by Guidi to the music of Sir Edward Elgar, England's leading turn-of-the-20th Century classical composer.
"Bolero," a signature Oakland Ballet piece since its premier in 1995, a 16-minute reconstruction of the 1928 masterwork by the legendary Bronislava Nijinska featuring the full company. It was choreographed by Marc Wilde to the familiar music of Maurice Ravel — music that film buffs will recognize from the movie "Ten," Schmalle notes.
"When I put this program together," Schmalle says, "I was conscious of being very accessible to people who haven't seen ballet. At the same time, if you have, and know it very well, you should be able to come and still enjoy it because the quality of the dancing is exceptional." He adds that he made an effort to vary the program in speed and type of dancing, too, so that "if there's something you really hate, it isn't going to go on very long."
For time and ticket information about Sunday's performance at Island Center, telephone 778-5272.


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