For their first performances in a “real” theater, Oceánica Ballet is presenting a family-friendly ballet double-feature with an autumnal theme. This past year, I have seen Oceánica perform in a low-ceilinged dance studio in South San Francisco, the vast atrium of the Hiller Aviation Museum, and now at the ODC Theater, November 10-12. Each time I am pleasantly surprised by what this nascent ballet company has to offer. Composed of well-trained and capable adult dancers for whom dancing is a passion, if not a profession, Oceánica has sufficient depth to have dual cast some featured roles, in this four-performance run.
"Sleepy Hollow,” Robert Lowman’s adaptation of Washington Irving’s haunting tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horsemen, is delightful from start to finish. The narrative is clear, the dancing engaging and the production values strong. Lowman has a gift for selecting music to match or carry a mood. Baroque selections are interspersed with Celtic and Scotch traditional tunes.
Hollie Rudolph and Robert Lowman bow with the cast of Oceanica Ballet's "Sleepy Hollow" Photo: J. Norris
The woods surrounding the town of Sleepy Hollow are the domain of a trio of benevolent witches. Kayla Gill, Rowan Williams and Yan Zhang hover on their toes. Flowing in the moonlight in translucent otherworldly shifts, their sinuous arms cast spells to protect lost travelers.
Sleepy Hollow is home to Innkeeper Katarina Van Tassel, elegantly delivered by Hollie Rudolph at the Saturday matinee. Village braggart Brom Bones (Edgar Lepe) seems a likely match for Katarina, until Ichabod (Robert Lowman at matinee) arrives on the scene. Lowman’s face was made for pantomime and his magnetic entrance captures the audience’s attention just as it does Katarina’s. Van Tassel and Lowman make a striking couple in their courtly dances, making great use of their complementary long lines.
There is some gentle fun to be had as the villagers form a receiving line to meet Ichabod. Their faces and antics demonstrate they aren’t too impressed. Sensing a rival for Katarina’s affection, Brom convinces a woman to trip Icabod; his pratfall gets a laugh from the kids in the audience and earns him a helping hand from Katarina.
Townspeople, dressed in their Sunday best circa Colonial New England, promenade in the town square. With raised arms they form an arch through which couples canter.
The stage is alive with substories and rich in characterizations. Miscalculating how best to get the upper hand, Lepe, as a scowling Brom, behaves brutishly to the newcomer shoving him out of the way.
When physical warfare fails, Brom tries a psychological strategy. To scare Icabod, the company, at Brom’s bequest, acts out a series of ghost stories. When Ichabod is finally shown to his quarters, he falls into a deep sleep haunted by nightmares. Through clever theatricality, the tale of the Headless Horsemen comes to life. Four dancers, one with a horse’s head puppet, form the horse. Their rider, a mannequin’s torso, dressed in formal wear and sporting a pumpkin head, is just spooky enough.
Oceánica’s cast of thirteen dancers bring this story to life with a joie d’vive that has me looking forward to future showings of this work.
The cast of Oceanica Ballet's "Lupita," takes their bow at the ODC Theater; Photo: J. Norris
Act two brings us "Lupita," a Dia De Los Muertos inspired ballet. It is framed loosely around the narrative of a woman transitioning from the world of the living to the afterlife, where she is welcomed by those who passed before her. Edgar Lepe’s choreography is flavored with European folk, jazz, Mexican Folklorico and Latin social dance styles. This collage of genres muddies the work for my taste.
Patience Gordon performs a lyrical and elegant opening solo as Lupita looking back at her life, clutching a family photo.
In Del Medoff’s atmospheric lighting a half dozen “Lost Souls,” in bedraggled street clothes and the traditional Catrina ("skull") make-up, worn by all the cast members, perform a loose-limbed dance. Their torsos pulse as they slump forward circling the floor with dangling Zombie arms.
A large floral arch, with PANTEON spelled colorfully above it, adorns the stage, signifying we are entering the cemetery on the Day of the Dead. Madeline Coury, Corinne Sohlé, and Rowan Williams appear in skeleton unitards with flouncy pink chiffon skirts. With hands on their hips, they thrust their chests forward and flex their elbows forward and back like birds.
A large group dance develops around the decoration of an altar. Celebrants arrive with bunches of marigolds, a bowl of tamales, and candles. Visiting relatives at the cemetery is a family affair and charmingly one cast member carries a two-year-old in their arms. The costumes are colorful and vibrant in keeping with the festive nature of Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos. Large, embroidered flowers cover the women’s blouses and white aprons. The men are in vests with black ribbons tied in bows at their necks, their arms tucked cleanly behind their backs. A simple folk-inspired dance plays out.
Lupita, newly in skull make-up, is joyously reunited with her lost love Lucio (Robert Lowman). They dance a balletic pas de deux. Lowman skillfully supports Gordon’s pirouettes, releasing her to float beautifully in an extended-leg arabesque.
Keeping her skirt raised so we can see her lightning-fast little kicks and Folklorico inspired taps performed in ballet slippers, Fabiana Santiago shines. Emulating the wings of a giant butterfly, the voluminous fabric of her skirt billows out from extended arms.
With a cast of more than twenty dancers, "Lupita" is a huge undertaking, with many ensemble sections. On this outing it feels over long, and some judicial cutting may be in order. In general, I admire how Oceanica’s careful choreographic choices typically show their dancers at their best, but here some of the choreography is too difficult for the dancers. The men in particular struggle to land their more difficult tricks.
Despite these quibbles, I remain impressed by the steady growth and smart choices Oceánica continues to demonstrate. Both Sleepy Hollow and Lupita have been shown annually in the Fall since 2021 creating a tradition for family audiences.
Review by Jen Norris, published November 13, 2023
Oceánica Ballet presents
Choreographer: Robert Burns Lowman
Ichabod Crane: Matthew Ebert / Robert Burns Lowman
Katrina Van Tassel: Patience Gordon / Hollie Rudolph
Brom Bones / The Headless Horseman: Edgar Lepe
Witches: Kayla Gill, Rowan Williams, Yan Zhang
Villagers / Shadows / Puppeteers: Madeline Coury, Marinna Kus, César Lino, Fabiana Santiago, Corinne Sohlé, Addie Spremich, Joshua Ugarte
Understudies: Rowan Williams (Katrina), Addie Spremich (Witches)
Lighting Design: Delayne Medoff
Sound Design: Nick Vance
Costume Construction: Joshua Ugarte
Prop Bench Construction: Henry Lowman
Tree Design & Construction: Sadé Warner
Puppet Design & Construction: Robert Lowman
Choreographer: Edgar Lepe In Memory of Guadalupe Lepe, who loved dance and music Lupita: Fabiana Santiago / Patience Gordon
Lucio: Robert Burns Lowman
Three Sisters / Death: Kayla Gill, Hollie Rudolph, Patience Gordon / Fabiana Santiago
La Catrina: Marinna Kus
Lost Souls: Lara Cheng, Matthew Ebert, César Lino, Addie Spremich, Joshua Ugarte, Yan Zhang Calaveras: Madeline Coury, Corinne Sohlé, Rowan Williams
Villagers: Lara Cheng, Madeline Coury, Matthew Ebert, Edgar Lepe, César Lino, Corinne Sohlé, Addie Spremich, Joshua Ugarte, Rowan Williams, Yan Zhang
Ensemble: Mandy Atkinson, Jackie Chavez, Kristen Kearns, Claire Lewis, Eriko McDermott, Johanna Ta, Nick Vance & Jett Cheng-Vance
Lighting Design: Delayne Medoff
Sound Design: Nick Vance
Costume Design: Edgar Lepe
Costume Construction: Edgar Lepe, Joshua Ugarte
Altar Design & Construction: Jaime Alvarez, Bianca Alvarez
Skull Mask Design & Construction: Robert Lowman, Bianca Alvarez
Consultants: Alexa Chavez, Samantha Romero
ADDITIONAL PROGRAM CREDITS
Production-Stage Manager: Delayne Medoff
Rehearsal Assistant: Marinna Kus C
ostume Run Crew: Camille Barlow
Wardrobe: Edgar Lepe, Joshua Ugarte, Karen Butcher
Assistant Craftsperson: Isabelle Sjahsam
Photographer/Videographer: Vin Eiamvuthikorn