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Celebrating the Guidi Era | With Lustig at the helm, the Oakland Ballet Company honors 50 years of dance this spring. | By Rita Felciano

On the occasion of the Oakland Ballet's 25th anniversary in 1990, founding director and Oakland-born and raised Ronn Guidi remembered that when he took the "big leap"—known as the grand jeté in ballet lingo—he felt as if "my feet were planted firmly in midair." It's a good image for this remarkable institution that celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. Running a ballet company is always a balancing act between the lofty and the practical.

That's exactly what Artistic Director Graham Lustig is doing for what is now the Oakland Ballet Company. Bringing a rich international experience as a dancer, choreographer, and artistic director of his own company, Lustig accepted the leadership in 2010 with his eyes wide open. He knew of the ensemble's noble history and the difficulties in the recent past. But he also saw the East Bay as a culturally vibrant set of communities that support dance in many different ways. He knew that Oakland needed its ballet company, and he set out to deliver.

By now, Lustig has stabilized OBC financially and can offer 10 weeks of employment to 12 dancers. His Nutcracker, which includes community dancers and kids, is about as lively and as intelligent a production as one would hope to see. Oakland-esque, last year's spring concert, featured four world premieres, three of them by the city's own choreographers. Today's Academy of Oakland Ballet offers classes from beginners to advance students; the Discover Dance program is integrated into the city's public schools curriculum; and in the summer OBC offers a three-week ballet boot camp for aspiring professionals. All of which is to say it looks like the company has found it footing—both in the air and on the ground. So there is every reason to celebrate with the OBC during the upcoming Five Decades of Dance festivities this month, the ballet company's spring repertory production celebrating 50 years of dance.

The hometown troupe may be best remembered for Guidi's extraordinary reconstructions of Diaghilev-era ballets. Few people who have seen them have forgotten those halcyon days. Yet Guidi also programmed American choreographies from the past and commissioned new works, many of them from women. The event honors Guidi's accomplishments in these areas, though Lustig has certainly put his own stamp on them.

Mikhail Fokine, Léonide Massine, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Bronislava Nijinska will call up the glory days of the Ballets Russes. Then fast-forward to the 1970s and '80s with eminent choreographers like Guidi, Alonzo King, Carlos Carvajal, and Eugene Loring. And finally, what Lustig called "six birthday presents"—brand new works by Val Caniparoli, Betsy Erickson, Michael Lowe, Robert Moses, Amy Seiwert, and Lustig himself. The individual pieces may be small in scale, but we can be assured that they will be joyous tributes to dance and the next 50 years. Considered program one, Dance will be performed at 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 23, at the Paramount Theatre. A ticketed post-performance reception follows.

Additionally, on the next day, the company will take the previous afternoon's world premiers to the debut of East Bay DANCES, a new festival that Lustig said he hopes will bring together on one stage the many faces of what is a vibrant and rapidly growing dance community. Essentially program two, it will be performed at 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 24, at the Laney College Odell Johnson Performing Arts Center. Participants this year, among others, include the mixed-ability AXIS Dance Company, Diablo Ballet and the Milissa Payne Project—directed by Oakland Ballet alumnae—and Street Dancers Turf Feinz who call themselves "a revolutionary dance collective." One look at them, and you will agree.

The final element of honoring this major milestone occurs earlier in the month, the 6:30 p.m. Saturday, May 2, 50th anniversary spring gala at The Bellevue Club, an evening of eating, drinking, bidding, and previews of Five Decades of Dance pieces.

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Rita Felciano is The Monthly's dance critic.



Found its footing: Oakland Ballet, here performing Graham Lustig's Vista. Photo by David DeSilva.