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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Oakland Ballet & Life in Motion Productions, ‘Flower’ screening, Sept 29, Paramount Theater

It’s opening night of the 59th Season of Oakland Ballet and the Paramount Theater is the place to be. The ticketed-patrons-line wends its way down the sidewalk. People bubbling with excitement ask each other, “Will Misty be here?” Inside, the Paramount’s vaulting Art Deco lobby is aglow, setting the stage for a memorable evening. Tonight is the Oakland premiere of world-renowned ballerina Misty Copeland’s dance film Flower, set in Oakland.


Marquee at Paramount Theater Oakland for Oakland Ballet's premiere of Misty Copeland's Flower; Photo J: Norris


The evening celebrates Oakland’s dance community with performances of classical and contemporary ballet as well as hip hop and turf. It seems everyone in the audience knows a few people on stage and is here to cheer them on. The raucous celebratory spirit of the proceedings is a welcome change from the staid ballet viewing that takes place in most concert dance settings.


Building interest for the coming season, Oakland Ballet previews short segments from their eclectic repertoire. A quintet from choreographer and Oakland Ballet Artistic Director Graham Lustig’s Dias de los Muertos themed Luna Mexicana serves as an energic opener. Dancers in skull make-up and vibrant Mexican skirts cartwheel and swirl. Dancers Ashley Thopiah and Lawrence Chen make a well-matched duo in a playful snippet of The Birthdays section from Luna Mexicana, partnering each other in a series of beautifully extended split-lifts, and conjuring an amusing sense of one-upmanship.


Next, the Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company takes the stage to thunderous applause. Sixteen members of this teen company, boys and girls, unfurl their hip hop moves with ferocity. Dressed in all black with white kicks, they hit their unison sequences with impressive cohesion. An empowering dance battle plays out with short solo sequences spotlighting each performer's unique talents, inside the safe space created by an arc of fellow performers.


Guest artist Angela Watson, formerly of Oakland Ballet, currently of San Francisco Ballet, begins her Sugar Plum Fairy ballet sample from Lustig’s The Nutcracker, perfectly balanced on her toes as a cry of “Go Angela,” rings through the venue. This is a night for hometown heroes to shine, and shine she does in this brief offering of classical pique turns and arabesques.


One of the highlights of the evening is the star turn of turf dancer Krow to Sade’s “Quiet Storm.” Krow floats on his toes, glides over the floor, and rolls on his knees, before articulating his chest to the floor with his arms drawn unnaturally up behind himself. I am drawn in by Krow’s supple agility as he develops his gravity-defying and agile joint-denying shapes.


Oakland Ballet’s celebration of AAPI cultures, the Dancing Moons Festival, is represented by several sections from choreographer Phil Chan’s Exquisite Corpse. The strong beat of Gabriel Prokofiev’s contemporary score gives notice that Chan’s Duet #5 won’t be your typical ballet. Petite dancer Nicole Townsend and her much larger partner Logan Martin have beautiful chemistry and comic timing together, as well as mad dance skills, as they compete against one another.


In Chan’s Solo #3, the always impressive Lawrence Chen dons the persona of a ballroom dancer. His body erect, his arms in position, Chen glides through the space giving a clinic on rumba, tango, cha cha and waltz accompanied by the vocal stylings of a Chinese night club singer.


Babatunji Johnson takes that stage for a soulful improvisational solo. Johnson will star later in the evening opposite Copeland in the film, but for now he is all liquid grace live on stage. Johnson interweaves ballet, break dance, hip hop and contemporary dance language with a fluidity and musical connection worthy of the high esteem with which he is held. I loved him as a dancer with Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, and am excited to see him break away to create his own work, though whether he can teach others to move from floor to foot, as seemingly effortlessly as he, is yet to be revealed.


Boots pulled from Oakland Ballet’s Rainbow Dances is an ensemble piece celebrating the non-binary and non-gender conforming community, choreographed by Shiori Kamji and Grayson McGuire, and performed to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” All seven performers, regardless of gender, wear sleeveless prairie-dresses and soft shin-high boots. A line dance of hip thrusts and fan kicks moves to the floor, eventually finding the dancers nested within each other locomoting along on their tushes. Swishing their skirts, kicking and strutting, the group has a hoedown’s worth of fun together.


After intermission we enjoy the street dance stylings of TURFFEINZ’s performers Levi, Chonkie, Icecold3000, Johnny, Kurry and Kosh. Their piece has a great flow, interspersing sections of synchronous movement with cameo moments for each individual. These performers respect each other’s stylings and it is heartening to see the whole group adopt a mover’s vibe before turning the floor over to a new soloist for a few captivating capers between the group dancing.


As Copeland takes the stage to introduce her film, she is joined by Lustig, who surprises her with an Oakland Ballet Arts Award. She seems genuinely touched and excited to be in Oakland, the place she and her co-producer Leyla Fayyaz chose to tell their story of postponed aspirations and housing insecurity. Misty speaks about Life in Motion’s commitment to make movies utilizing the power of dance to tell stories.


At just under 30 minutes, Flower feels like a love letter to Oakland and the power of the universal language of dance to create community. There is no shame here; tent encampments appear in dazzling sunlight and the only words spoken throughout are a few sentences by an unhoused duo who convey how easy it is to slip from housed to homeless.

Copeland’s character, Rose, is a young woman working multiple jobs. She aspires to a professional dance career, but remains in Oakland to care for her mother. Christina Johnson depicts Rose’s dementia-addled parent with dignity and inner strength.


We encounter the enigmatic Sterling, portrayed by Babatunji Johnson, through a dance studio window, entertaining Rose’s young ballet students with his Chaplinesqe sidewalk antics. Charmed by him, Rose develops a friendship with Sterling, who may be living in his car. Later, a dream sequence choreographed by Alonzo King shows Copeland and Johnson in a balletic pas de deux on a grand stage with tiers of red velvet seats in the background, awaiting an audience.


Director Lauren Finerman brings us close to the action, emphasizing the faces and torsos of her performers. This is unusual in a dance film. Seeing the real people dancing rather than being focused on their footwork is refreshingly humanizing. Flower contains gorgeous dancing. From the turf dancers in the streets to the elementary-school-age classical students in the studio, all are elevated through the lens.


This evening’s opening of the Oakland Ballet season is truly special, drawing a large and diverse audience into community and conversation, just as Copeland intended her film to do. Non-profits Mom’s for Housing, focused on reclaiming Oakland’s housing from the big banks and real estate speculators, and Elizabeth House, providing housing and support for women and children transitioning to independence, await us in the lobby, eager to direct our new commitment and energy to create positive change.


Review by Jen Norris, published October 3, 2023

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Link to digital program https://oaklandballet.org/flower-program/


Production Credits

Flower

Friday, September 29, 2023 - 7:00pm

Paramount Theatre


Oakland Ballet - The Birthdays Duet

Choreographer - Graham Lustig

Dancers - Ashley Thopiah, Lawrence Chen


Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company -

The Beginning

Music - Ms. Jade / Kehlani / A-Star / Norman Sann

Choreographers - Paula Dewart & Rashidi Omari

Dancers - Alex Ajose-Nixon, Tsimona Amare, Sophia Amrane, Tallulah

Armstrong-Temple, Bella Beatrice, Amenna Black, Jayla Brown,

Lola Christ, Lue Helmy, Madinah Katumbusi, Gina Raye Levexier,

Tiebe Kubick-Walsh, Dylan Olivares, Brooke Parker, Sienna Taylor,

Naomi West, Lina Zahid


Angela Watson - Sugar Plum Fairy Solo

Music - Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Choreographer - Graham Lustig

Costumes - Zack Brown


Oakland Ballet - Coffee Duet

Music - Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Choreographer - Graham Lustig

Costumes - Zack Brown

Dancers - Ashley Thopiah, William Fowler


Krow

Music - Sade


Oakland Ballet - Exquisite Corpse Solo

Music - 姚敏 & 陳蝶衣

Choreographer - Phil Chan

Costumes - Xinyi Zhang & Bethany Deal

Dancer - Lawrence Chen


Babatunji Johnson


Oakland Ballet - Boots

Music - Lee Hazelwood

Choreographers - Shiori Kamijo & Grayson McGuire

Dancers - Lawrence Chen, Karina Eimon, William Fowler, Logan Martin,

Jazmine Quezada, Ashley Thopiah, Nicole Townsend


ACT 2


TURFFEINZ

Levi, Chonkie, Icecold3000, Johnny, Kurry and Kosh


Oakland premiere of Flower

Introduction by Misty Copeland

The film is produced by Copeland and Emmy-winning writer-producer

Leyla Fayyaz of Life in Motion Productions, directed by Lauren

Finerman with music by Raphael Saadiq, and stars Misty Copeland,

Babatunji Johnson, and Christina Johnson with choreography by Alonzo

King and Rich + Tone Talauega ft. TURF dancers.

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