Graham Lustig’s stewardship of Oakland Ballet has been one of the decade’s most heartening East Bay arts stories. Since taking the venerable company’s reins in 2010, the British-born choreographer has dutifully put Oakland Ballet back on solid a fiscal footing after some very lean and disorganized years, with his excellent production of The Nutcracker serving as its budget-covering centerpiece.
Financial stability aside, what’s made Lustig’s tenure so exciting is the way he’s thrown himself and the company into the Bay Area arts scene, building connections with other dance troupes, choreographers and musicians. On April 5-6, Oakland Ballet premieres new works in Berkeley High’s Florence Schwimley Little Theater for its 2019 Spring Repertory Season, pieces that highlight the way in which Lustig is enmeshing the company in East Bay culture.
Inspired by the blues, jazz and R&B artists who made West Oakland a hotbed of musical innovation, Jazz Vistas includes choreography by Lustig, Ballet Master Bat Abbit, and company dancers Vincent Chavez and Ramona Kelley (who made her first dance as a student at Berkeley High and was last seen on a Berkeley stage at Zellerbach dancing with Twyla Tharp). Local choreographers Natalya Shoaf and Dazaun Soleyn also contribute to “The Oaktown Blues.”
The Jazz Vistas program includes a remounted version of Lustig’s “Vista,” which is set to the Downtown cabaret jazz of John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards, but the music for “The Oaktown Blues” is performed live on stage by an ensemble made up of students, alumni and faculty from the Oaktown Jazz Workshop led by organization’s executive director (and Berkeley High grad) Ravi Abcarian on guitar. Tiffany Austin, whose transition from Cal law school graduate to nationally recognized jazz vocalist is another great East Bay arts story, joins the Workshop band as a special guest.
“I love that we’re digging into the local lore,” says Austin, a Berkeley resident. “And I love that we’re at the Berkeley High theater. I never get to perform in Berkeley, though yesterday I sat in with Electric Squeezebox Orchestra at the Jazzschool.”
Lustig decided to draw on West Oakland’s musical heritage “as part of my own education,” he says. “Since I moved to Oakland two-and-a-half years ago I’ve been discovering interesting facts about the social history. I was reading about some of the old theaters and clubs that used to be here, especially in West Oakland. I was awe struck looking at the artists who came through or lived there, Big Mama Thornton, Ivory Joe Hunter, Etta James and Sugar Pie DeSanto. I thought it would be a great thing to celebrate this music.”
He’s designed the program to prominently feature the Oaktown ensemble, which includes OJW Youth Mentor Ashanti Johnson on vocals and alto saxophone, OJW student Ruben Green on piano, OJW Youth Mentor Anthony Mills-Branch on upright bass, and OJW instructor and drummer Mark Lee, a veteran accompanist who’s performed with Ernestine Anderson, Freda Payne, Charles Brown, the Pointer Sisters and many others.
“The musicians will be on stage, integrated into the action,” Lustig says. There are moments when the musicians will be the focus. The idea is to bring in choreographers to interpret these tunes for today, songs played by young people. We’re not dancing lindy hop or dressing in flared skirts. We’re not trying to do something historical. I thought it would be refreshing to look at this music and do something new with it.”
Recommended gig: Laurie Antonioli
Laurie Antonioli, a jazz vocalist and bandleader with impeccable taste and capacious musical imagination, celebrates the April 19 release of her new album The Constant Passage of Time (Origin records) Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory, where she’s the founder and director of the school’s jazz vocal program. It’s the latest album featuring her American Dreams band, a stellar quintet featuring veteran reed expert Sheldon Brown, guitarist Dave Mac Nab, pianist Matt Clark, drummer Jason Lewis, and bassist/recording engineer Dan Feiszli (taking over for the late John Shifflett, the ensemble’s original bassist). Interpreting songs by iconic singer/songwriters Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and contemporary jazz masters such as Yellowjackets keyboardist Russell Ferrante and guitarist Nguyên Lê, Antonioli expands on previous albums like her critically hailed 2014 project Songs of Shadow, Songs of Light: The Music of Joni Mitchell (Origin Records). The album takes its title from a line in Antonioli’s ache-filled lyrics from her Ferrante collaboration “Longing For You,” a piece that grew out of their performance at the California Jazz Conservatory. With its 5/4 meter and sinuously evocative melodic line, the song sets the mood for an album suffused with the bittersweet consciousness of time’s inexorable forward momentum.