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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Oceánica Ballet presents EVOLUTION March 10-12, 2023 Bay Area Ballet Conservatory, So. SF

The Bay Area has a new non-profit, Oceánica Ballet, whose mission is to “enliven the San Francisco Bay Area cultural landscape by making professional-level ballet performances accessible and relatable to Bay Area audiences.” They are performing in the studio of a ballet school in South San Francisco. It is with some trepidation that I wend my way between airport hotels and commercial shipping businesses to arrive at the Bay Area Ballet Conservatory.

Ballet is a precise and unforgiving artform. Many study and train, but there is room for only a few at the elite levels, which leaves a wealth of professional-trained dancers behind, eager to choreograph and perform together. Founded in 2021 during the pandemic, Oceánica Ballet draws on the rich pool of talented artists in the Bay Area. They aspire to make “innovative ballet-based works” while welcoming dancers with a range of body types, ages and ethnicities.

The printed program for Oceánica Ballet’s Evolution is glossy and colorful. It lists six works, choreographed by five Bay Area based artists, and performed by twelve dancers, all of whose work is new to me. During pre-show, as Co-Artistic Directors Edgar Lepe and Robert Burns Lowman thank us profusely, I am still unsure. This could be a great opportunity to discover talent or a cringe-worthy vanity project.

I am delighted to share that the evening is nicely paced and full of interesting choreography. Each piece is well-rehearsed and cleanly presented. One of the strengths of the show is that the dancers perform with assurance. All the choreography is crafted to suit their skills. There are no off-balance lifts or moments of poorly matched skills to distract. Atypical of classical ballet choreography many of the pieces use floorwork to great effect. In this intimate venue, the fluid movement of dancers rising to stand en pointe, from kneeling or lying positions provides vertical range, without the demands of lifts and high jumps.

The highlight of Connolly Strombeck’s neoclassical Bloom is a romantic pas de deux between Madeline Coury and Robert Burns Lowman. Lowman lifts Coury to his shoulder, her body beautifully arced, before she curves down and around his chest, drawing applause mid-piece.

Choreographer Vinnie Jones’s Il Purgatorio features a distressed Matthew Ebert and an elegant Marinna Kus. While he arches and tumbles on the floor, she glides effortlessly along. He is in her thrall. Alone with his thoughts, his head in his hands, three striking women in blood-red dresses approach. Envying their nimbleness, Ebert copies them, dancing on his toes his arms gracefully spread, before dropping to the floor, in a crisis of confidence. An excellent actor we feel Ebert’s struggle as his certainty vacillates. Conquering his demons, he exits with a large leap, leaving Kus diminished on her knees.

It is refreshing to see Oceánica Ballet embrace non-traditional casting in both Robert Burns Lowman’s Echoes and Vinnie Jones’s The Lake. Blind casting, in which casting decisions are made without consideration of skin color, body shape, sex or gender, is fairly common in theaters and contemporary dance settings, it is more rarely seen in classical ballet.

Echoes, performed to Debussy’s Clair du Lune, features six dancers dressed in long grey China silk skirts: five women and one man, Edgar Lepe. Their movement is nearly identical. Though the women’s toe-shoes allow them to rise higher, Lepe is just one of them. Lowman’s pacing is unhurried, permitting us time to appreciate the dancers’ curved torsos, as they arch toward their side-kicking toes.

Patience Gordon in white shorts and Rowan Williams in a layered handkerchief-hemmed white dress perform a reimagined White Swan Pas de Deux in Vinnie Jones’s The Lake. Their pairing is playful and assured. Gordon leans into Williams, who on bended-knee catches her waist and lifts her tenderly. They switch places and now Williams’s willowy swan arms are lifting Gordon. While the program notes this is a duet for two women, it seems it could be danced by any two dancers, regardless of gender.

Choreographer and costume designer Edgar Lepe creates a supernatural world for A Soul’s Dream. Danced to Zoe Keating’s atmospheric electronic cello layering, the performers in nude leotards, with black streaks in place of eyes, move mechanically. Their bodies stiff, arms plastered to their sides, they skitter through space, expressionless. The occasional smirk looks like a mistake, until I recall a program note referencing suppressed emotions leaking through.

Oceánica Ballet: Bows for Choreographer and costumer Edgar Lepe's A Soul's Dream photo: J. Norris

Andrea Salazar’s modern dance quartet, Shaped, makes a suitable finale. Gordon and Williams, from The Lake, are joined by Nicole Khoo and Marinna Kus. Grounded on flat flexed feet, they fold at the waist. The release of breath is audible as they fling their arms skyward. Their descending hands brush their cheeks. Cocked elbows jut out as their hands rest above and below their heads Interdependencies evolve, as they group and regroup. When Khoo has a crisis, struggling on the floor, the others lift and support her. An intriguing dance maker, I hope to see more of Salazar’s work, perhaps on her company A Pulso Dance Project.

Oceánica Ballet: Bows for Andrea Salazar's Shaped; Photo J. Norris

Oceánica Ballet’s EVOLUTION is a step in their evolution. It will be interesting to see what comes next. The audience was meager for Friday night’s show. With so many locally-based artists involved, one would expect family and friends to have filled the opening night seats. Perhaps programming a four-performance run was a stretch. Their 2023 season continues August 19-20 at the Hillier Aviation Museum, and then November 10-12 at ODC Theater.

Review by Jen Norris, published March 11, 2022

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