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Oakland Ballet and Mills dancers join forces

Dance department head Sonya Delwaide teachers her intermediate ballet class. Delwaide hopes the dancers will learn what's it like in a professional company from the Oakland Ballet. (Stephanie Scerra)

The light pitter-pat of freshly worn pointe shoes echoes across one of Haas Pavilion’s dance studios. Without a place to rehearse after the Company closed in 2006, Oakland Ballet’s dancers now pirouette across the marely floors of Mills College in preparation for this winter’s rendition of The Nutcracker. Without Mills’ help, Oakland Ballet might not have dainty snowflakes, heroic toy soldiers and decadent bonbons preparing to perform the classic ballet this December. Instead of giving up the Christmas tradition, Oakland Ballet has decided to partner with the College by providing Mills attendees with opportunities of their own.

“I think there are all sorts of possibilities here,” said Graham Lustig, the new artistic director of the Oakland Ballet. “There’s a lot more dance traffic coming to Mills.”

The growing number of students interested in dance has been rewarded by the Mills College dance department’s addition of an advanced ballet course taught by Amy Seiwert, a professional choreographer recommended by the Oakland Ballet. It was an opportunity Sonya Delwaide, head of the dance department, couldn’t deny her students.

“I thought, why can’t we host them?  Why can’t we support them?” Delwaide said.

Since the Company will continue to use Haas to rehearse, students will be able to watch the inner-workings of a professional company. Dance students look forward to getting a first-hand look as well as a professional name attached to the Mills dance department.

Two dance students practice their degages at the barre. (Stephanie Scerra)

“If we had a deeper collaboration with a professional company, it would give us a deeper look into how a company runs, financially, politically,” said Lacey Carter, a second-year graduate student studying choreography and performance.

The collaboration between the Mills dance department and Oakland Ballet has been a long time coming. While this is the first time the two representatives have had a formal partnership, the groups have been helping each other for quite some time.

“Some of the marketing grad students (at Mills) have done research on the Oakland Ballet Company that was critical to the launch of the Oakland Ballet, and to enhance the new website” in the spring, Lustig said.  “We’re now talking about how to develop marketing for performances.”

Lustig has taught dance classes at Mills as well, an idea that sparked from Delwaide’s belief that creative collaboration is beneficial to both the ballet company and the Mills department.

“We’re known for a strong modern department, but less known for ballet,” Delwaide said. “I love the way we can have a strong ballet component along with our strong modern.”

Delwaide helps one of her students adjust her developpe. (Stephanie Scerra)

However, as Seiwert teaches advanced ballet this semester, she advises dancers against meshing two styles together – Seiwert believes meshing can generate conflict – and encourages her dancers to focus solely on ballet in her class.

“The class…is going to make (you) more aware,” Seiwert said.

Students in Seiwert’s class agree.

“I think for us at Mills, Sonya is a fantastic dance teacher, but she is the only one – besides Amy and Yukie Fujimoto – to teach ballet technique,” said Abbie Ackerman, a second-year graduate student in the MFA dance program.  “Having someone else’s view on technique would help expand ours.”

Carter appreciates Seiwert’s way of delivering critique.

“(Seiwert) really knows how to take a ballet class and give it a modern perspective.  She has a way of communicating her ideas,” Carter said.

Oakland Ballet intends to make more classes available to Mills students in the future.

“I have offered to give a choreographic workshop,” Lustig said.  “I’m also hoping to offer a summer program that would be opened to Mills students.”

Students had the option of auditioning for and performing in Lustig’s “The Nutcracker,” but the intense rehearsal schedule conflicted with their academic demands, according to Delwaide and Lustig.

“I encouraged them to attend auditions for ‘The Nutcracker,’ but given the schedule, many felt they couldn’t fit it,” Lustig said.  “Once it’s been on stage, I hope people can see it and will want to participate.”

A photograph of one of the previous Nutcracker performances directed by Graham Lustig, Oakland Ballet's new artistic director as of August of this year. (Photo by Ron Lessard. Courtesy of American Repertory Ballet and Princeton Ballet School)

Currently, the partnership does not require a large commitment from Mills or the Oakland Ballet, but both representatives hope to see their relationship strengthen over time.

“I would love to have them all year around,” Delwaide said. “They could be part of our curriculum – it could really blend.”

However, Delwaide said that setting aside studio space for the whole year is difficult, especially because the Oakland Ballet is still in the process of relaunching thier company, which Delwaide thinks will take two to three years.

“First, they need to see if they can get on their feet,” she said.