Step by Step

A witty anthology of dance opens Oakland Ballet's 35th season

Oakland Ballet's rehearsal studio has become a dance history classroom, and Mary Cochran, a petite powerhouse with a tousle of exuberant paprika-red curls, is calling out the syllabus.

"It's actually Nijinsky meets hip hop," Cochran says as a lanky woman in pointe shoes demonstrates a warped version of the running man. Then to the other dancers: "Could you go back a few phrases and show me the Balanchine section? Thanks. That's good, that's good. Let me see it from the Elvis lineup. Good. And this here, what did we decide this was, Maurice Bejart?"

If some of the names don't ring any bells, don't worry: Cochran may be the only person able to identify all the dance references in her encyclopedic new piece, Onomatomania, which opens Oakland Ballet's 35th season at the Paramount Theater this Friday. "Twyla Tharp," she chants to herself during a run-through. "Doris Humphrey. Mazurka. Balanchine. Jitterbug. Fosse."

A Stylistic Romp: Mary Cochran premieres Onomatomania
A Stylistic Romp: Mary Cochran premieres Onomatomania

Details

The premiere of Mary Cochranís Onomatomania, along with Alonzo Kingís Love Dogs, Betsy Ericksonís Sfumato, and Tomm Ruudís Bella di Notte at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $11-39; call (510) 762-2277.
Paramount Theater, 2025 Broadway, Oakland

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One dance touchstone Cochran doesn't cite but very well might is Paul Taylor, possibly the most accessible choreographer in the history of modern dance. Cochran starred in his company for 13 years and then directed his junior company, Taylor 2, before joining the dance faculty of Mills College in 1999. Her new piece, set to a Brahms score performed live by pianist Awadgin Pratt, is eclectic, frenetic, and a perfect example of the kind of modern-ballet crossover of which the Bay Area will be seeing a lot this coming dance season.

"My wallet was just stolen so I have been a victim of identity theft," Cochran says, her lightly freckled skin gleaming after a full day of rehearsal. "And so when I started this I was thinking, "What is my identity? What is my heritage in this postmodern era? It's everything.' So that's what I'm using -- everything."

Even so, like many of today's crossover choreographers, Cochran doesn't expect Oakland Ballet's dancers to absorb techniques foreign to their training. Much like Mark Morris, who last month be-gan working on his third commission for San Francisco Ballet, Cochran is creating a bona fide ballet. The true movement base of Onomatomania (which means "an obsession with words" and refers, Cochran says, to modern choreographers' penchant for making up odd step names) is classical: Despite the work's inclusion of everything from cancan lines to Fosse-style slouching it is the ballet movements -- a delicate arabesque here, a high à la seconde there -- that come across as the work's foundations.

Aside from studying ballet as a child and teaching it at Mills, Cochran has some rather unorthodox credentials in the classical department. "I'm the only Paul Taylor dancer ever to appear en pointe," she says. "But it was comic. It was a short-lived work."

Cochran's stylistic romp is surprisingly apt for Oakland Ballet, which stakes its name on its Diaghilev-era repertoire -- one of the largest and best-danced in the world -- but performs works by Michel Fokine and Alonzo King with equal gusto. "I did some research on the history of Oakland Ballet and thought about all the influences they've had over the years: Nijinsky, Loring, Massine, DeMille, Balanchine, Tudor," Cochran says, taking a break in a back office and thumbing through a list of the company's performance history. "I thought I'd make use of them."

The company is about to add a pivotal new chapter to its already impressive history: In April, former Dance Theater of Harlem dancer Karen Brown became artistic director, ending a two-year search for a successor to Oakland Ballet's beloved founder, Ronn Guidi. The 2001-2002 season will be the first Brown programs, but she's wasted no time making her commanding presence felt in the studio. And Cochran's new dance fits neatly into her vision.

"I think it's going to be a fantastic piece for our arts education programs," Brown says while watching a run-through from front and center. "One of the problems of bringing ballet to the public is that people feel they don't know enough about it. They think they're missing something. And in this piece there's so much someone could explain."

It's certainly one oddly rambunctious and tongue-in-cheek lesson. "I hope people will find it funny, but at the same time it's not meant to be throwaway slapstick," Cochran says. "It can be appreciated on different levels. There's so many double entendres. And it shouldn't always be obvious what the references are."

 
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