Even before the show got started, I was afraid we might end up here, where true rapture and perfumey affect get confused. Like most regional ballet companies, Oakland Ballet depends on wispy notions of grace and childhood. It trains the little girls who have turned out for this evening's performance to be delicate tulips who can do the splits. If they're good enough, they'll fill their bodies with light, extending into adulthood the fantasies their training has manufactured.

The dances' manic activity and glazed ebullience stem from these flowery notions. Method guru Lee Strasberg's advice to actors -- that you need to be stripped of your habitual illusions in order to "give yourself with belief to the object, event, or experience you're trying to create" -- applies with slight modification to all the arts, ballet included. The problem is that ballet as an institution, at least, lives off illusion, referred to as "enchantment."

The limits this dependency imposes on the choreography come through clearest in the most promising ballet of the evening, Assistant Artistic Director Michael Lowe's Emperor and the Nightingale. The work features all sorts of commendable things: an apt story for a ballet; Mark Attebery's shifting, nuanced score; the two-headed Death that comes to carry away the emperor; and Lara Deans Lowe's supple, limpid dancing. But its center is missing. The ballerina meant to depict the nightingale's inspirited song hardly moves at all. Lowe is fine at rendering the caged bird and the sparkling robot, but he has no language for a bird singing in full-throated ease -- no movement sufficiently plain, immediate, and free. At intermission, a young man in a business suit: "When I nab one of those girls, I'm going to stick her in a cage." I think she's already in one.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

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