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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Oakland Ballet’s Dancing Moons Festival at Oakland Asian Cultural Center March 16-18, 2023

As we make our way to the Oakland Asian Cultural Center for Oakland Ballet’s second annual Dancing Moons Festival, we pass under a canopy of red Chinese Lanterns. The Festival is a full evening of ballet created by Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) choreographers, the first of its kind in the nation.


The performance space is a high-ceilinged room configured with a rectangular sprung dancefloor center. We sit in chairs not more than four feet from the edges of the floor on all sides. What a thrilling way to inspire new ballet fans. The intimacy takes the formality out of this classical art form, removing the Eurocentric value of front-facing perfection and allowing us to understand the power and nuance of balletic movement.


Lawrence Chen, left, and Karina Eimon in Ballet des Porcelaines. Photo by John Hefti


The first act is comprised of three short ballets, which show off the range and skill of Oakland Ballet’s dancers. Phil Chan’s The Ballet des Porcelaines or The Teapot Prince (1739) is a clever retelling of a narrative in which a sorcerer has turned a prince to porcelain and only the princess’s love can set him free. Logan Martin, wand in hand, is a smarmy sorcerer strutting around like a peacock. Prince Lawrence Chen’s sword wielding cannot outfight a magic spell. He is frozen in place, a ceramic doll with index fingers pointed up, a reference to the stereotypical handshape used in The Nutcracker to represent Asian people. Princess Karina Eimon’s devotion is clear. She kisses the immobile prince, listening to his heart, clinging to his legs in despair, before her fist-pounding exaspertion melts the spell.


Dancers Lizzie Devanney and William Fowler are magnetic in Phil Chan’s Amber Waves. The choreography requires speed and athleticism as Devanney launches herself off Fowler’s chest, or holds her body taut, parallel to the floor, as he swirls across the stage with her balanced on his arms. Their partnership is trusting and dynamic.


Layer Upon Layer by Caili Quan is a trio performed to a selection of songs by Guamanian artists. Lawrence Chen awes us with his opening solo. He unfurls a series of dance moves: leaps, spins, rolls and body-waves equivalent to an Olympic gymnast’s floor routine. Quan has more than stunts in her bag. She creates a sassy frenemy duo in Jazmine Quezada and Ashely Thopiah. All three dancers take turns standing on one leg while slowly rotating or overextending their other leg, using their arms and torsos to create interesting counterbalances.


Ashley Thopiah, left, and Jazmine Quezada in Caili Quan's Layer Upon Layer. Photo by Ron Thiele


The centerpiece of the evening is the premiere of Exquisite Corpse, inspired by a Surrealist parlor game in which one person draws a head, then folds the paper to hide the head but leaving room for another to draw a body. The paper is folded once more and a third person blindly draws legs before the full figure drawing is revealed and one enjoys and ponders the results.


To play a choreographic version of this game, Oakland Ballets has engaged Phil Chan, Elaine Kudo and Seyong Kim. Rather than assigning each choreographer a single body part to connect to the others, they have commission three pieces from each: a solo (head), a duet (legs) and a larger work (torso). The dances are shown in seemingly random order, except for Seyong Kim’s trio of pieces which are performed sequentially.


It is difficult to follow the twists and turns of so many short dances. All are performed with style and commitment by the dancers, but some are as memorable for their costumes, by Xinyi Zhang & Bethany Deal, as for their choreography. This has more to do with the density of the compilation of the work, than the failings of any specific piece.


Corpse begins with a trio by Elaine Kudo of coquettish caricatures of women. Ashley Thopiah, Nicole Townsend and Karina Eimon sportingly perform a ballet meets pantomime piece to J.S. Bach’s baroque music while wearing ill-kempt white wigs and being asked to swap dresses halfway through.


I very much enjoyed Kudo’s sensual duet for Jazmine Quezada and William Fowler. Discovered on the floor in Maxx Kurzunski’s steamy red light, as Zaliva’D’s pulsing club beats fill the room, the dancers rise slowly by pressing their backs into each other. While often facing away from each other, they maintain a deep connection.


Kudo’s other contribution is a chaotic ten-person ensemble. While it features too many dancers for this space, it may look stunning on the proscenium stage of the Presido Theater, where the whole program will be reprised in early April.


Phil Chan’s solo on Lawrence Chen left no doubt that Chen is a man of many talents. Taking on 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 Chinese instrumental music. He throws off a few huge leaps, before sinking to the splits and rising again, hands free. We wonder if there is anything this man can’t do, his program blurb says he works in biotech by day!


Seyong Kim’s three pieces sit together nicely at the end of Corpse. Though the whole point of the game is to interweave ideas between individuals, so it feels a bit like cheating. Karina Eimon begins her solo in a padded Japanese kimono, the weight of which threatens to entangle and topple her in her toe shoes. Perhaps an apt metaphor for how the overall concept of the Exquisite Corpse game weighs down the potential for in-depth appreciation of the various dances comprised within.


Review by Jen Norris, published March 18, 2022.

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Credits

DANCING MOONS 2023

A presentation of Oakland Ballet in collaboration with the Oakland Asian Cultural Center


The Ballet des Porcelaines or The Teapot Prince

Creator and Producer - Meredith S. Martin

Creator and Choreographer - Phil Chan

Libretto - Anne-Claude-Philippe de Tubières, comte de Caylus (1692-1765)

Original Music - Nicolas Racot de Grandval (1676-1753)

Score transcribed from the 1739 manuscript “Le Prince Pot-àThé” by Grant Herreid Kintsugi

Music - Sugar Vendil

Lighting - Maxx Kurzunski

Costume Design - Harriet Jung

Dancers: Princess - Karina Eimon Sorcerer - Logan Martin Prince - Lawrence Chen


Amber Waves

Choreographer - Phil Chan

Music - Meditation on ‘America the Beautiful’ by Huong Ruo

Pianist - Min Kwon

Lighting - Maxx Kurzunski

Costumes - Christopher Dunn

Dancers - Lizzie Devanney, William Fowler


Layer Upon Layer

Choreographer - Caili Quan

Music - Tinumbuk a tinadtar by Kubing, Mire of Eamaki by David Fanshawe, Himene Tarava Pirae, performed by the Youth of Pirae

Lighting - Maxx Kurzunski

Costumes - Christopher Dunn

Dancers - Lawrence Chen, Jazmine Quezada, Ashley Thopiah


Exquisite Corpse

Lighting - Maxx Kurzunski

Costume Design - Xinyi Zhang & Bethany Deal

Wardrobe - Bethany Deal


#1 Trio - Choreographer - Elaine Kudo

Music - J.S. Bach Dancers - Ashley Thopiah, Nicole Townsend, Karina Eimon


#2 Duet Choreographer - Elaine Kudo

Music - Zaliva-D

Dancers - Jazmine Quezada, William Fowler


#3 Solo Choreographer - Phil Chan

Music - 姚敏 & 陳蝶衣

Dancer - Lawrence Chen


#4 Ensemble Choreographer - Elaine Kudo

Music - Ryuichi Sakamoto

Dancers - Full Company


#5 Duet Choreographer - Phil Chan

Music - Gabriel Prokofiev

Dancers - Nicole Townsend, Logan Martin


#6 Quartet Choreographer - Phil Chan

Music - Michael Nyman

Dancers - Jazmine Quezada, Ashley Thopiah, César Lino, Lucas Sverdlen


#7 Solo Choreographer - Seyong Kim

Music - Charles Dumont & Michel Vaucaire

Dancer - Karina Eimon


#8 Duet Choreographer - Seyong Kim

Music - J.S. Bach

Dancers - Ashley Thopiah, Lawrence Chen


#9 Ensemble Choreographer - Seyong Kim

Music - J.S. Bach

Dancers - Karina Eimon, Jazmine Quezada, Nicole Townsend, Logan Martin, William Fowler, Lucas Sverdlen

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