Without ever looking distinguished in any one style, Oakland Ballet met a number of different challenges skillfully enough that sheer versatility sustained its program of Bay Area specialties, Sunday evening at Pepperdine University in Malibu.
To chamber music by Peter Sculthorpe, "Sightings" featured intriguing postmodern spatial/ sculptural gambits--especially complex layers of action and passages in which some of the 13 dancers formed corridors and other architectural structures that shaped the movement options of the rest.
"Sightings" choreographers Margaret Jenkins and Ellie Klopp belong to the world of modern dance, but the Oakland ensemble seemed equally at home in that domain as in the style of whimsical, all-American contemporary ballet exemplified by company executive director Ron Thiele's "How'd They Catch Me?" Unfortunately, Thiele's suite of one-joke miniatures failed to match the wit and invention of its accompaniment: Stravinsky's "Two Suites for Small Orchestra."
For a character-dance showpiece, the company turned to Willam Christensen's 1950 "Nothin' Doin' Bar" (music by Milhaud), a knockabout farce set in a Prohibition-era speak-easy. Dominated by pantomime, the work's chief dance opportunity turned out to be a tap solo for the elegant Joral Schmalle--but everyone mustered conviction galore in a style foreign to today's dancers.
To those audiences who insist on tutus, toe shoes and the Imperial Russian tradition, Oakland Ballet offered a reconstruction by dance historian Frank W. D. Ries of a lost pas de deux danced by Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Mordkin in many versions starting in 1909 (the Ries edition is dated 1910, with choreography credited to Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky).
Obviously, Abra Rudisill and Mario Alonzo couldn't match the star power of long-dead ballet icons, but their confident performance of intricate bravura choreography conveyed a greater sense of how Pavlova initially excited her public than the hyper-glamorous, off-speed silent films Pavlova made in the 1920s.