| | By Mike Rosen-Molina Photos by Margaretta K. Mitchell
As long as he can remember, Graham Lustig felt an irresistible draw to dance. He was always moving; as a child growing up in London, he would twirl and pivot to the songs that he heard coming from his parents' radio. But he didn't realize that dance was something that people did seriously; something that people could practice for a living. For him, it was all about the simple joy of movement.
Then one day, one of his schoolmates men-tioned that there existed special schools devoted entirely to dance. Lustig was astounded by the very idea.
"I had never heard of such a thing; I didn't have an older sister who did ballet or anything," said Lustig, now 59. "I nagged my parents for six months, and they eventually let me go to dance school. I've been blessed to have dance in my life every day since."
Lustig is a friendly, excitable man who talks a mile a minute when it comes to his favorite topic. For the past three years, he's steered the Oakland Ballet Company as its artistic director, but he's quick to downplay his own contribution to the company's success. The Oakland Ballet Company has a rich history stretching back 49 years, so Lustig thinks of his own time with the theater as "barely scratching the surface." And being a collaborative art form, ballet relies not just on the vision of its artistic director, but also on the dedicated work of a whole team of dancers, designers, staff, and volunteers. Nevertheless, in his short tenure, Lustig has masterminded the ballet's emergence as more than just a dance venue, positioning OBC as a powerful force for art in the community.
"I was born with a little bit of Saint Vitus," jokes Lustig, referring to the name given by medieval chroniclers to mysterious outbreaks of dancing fever that occurred throughout Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Sometimes thousands of people would break into spontaneous dance that could last days or weeks before the dancers collapsed in exhaustion.
After a lifetime of dance, Lustig is far from exhausted. After studying at the Royal Ballet School in London, Lustig started his career with the Dutch National Ballet in Holland, where he trained under ballet giants like Nikolai Beriosov, Kurt Jooss, and Rudolf Nureyev. He later spent 12 years touring around the world with Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet. Starting in 1999, he served as artistic director of the American Repertory Ballet and the Princeton Ballet School in New Jersey, for 11 years—the longest-ever tenure for an ARB artistic director. Today, Lustig splits his time between Oakland and New Jersey, where he still serves as artistic director for the dance company he founded in 2010, Lustig Dance Theater.
As a veteran choreographer, Lustig loves that he's found the freedom to explore any topic that piques his interest. When a friend invited him to view a photography exhibition about the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, it inspired him to start researching the festival. The result was his tribute ballet Luna Mexicana, which features stiff-legged dancers dressed as skeletal calacas gamboling to different styles of Mexican dance from hip-hop to native folk.
"My life is completely wrapped up in dance work," said Lustig. "It's a great and deep privilege to still be in touch with the art you have a lifelong affair with. You feel a sense of being fully who you are. It's a chance to embrace the deepest, widest, tallest part of yourself. When a performance occurs, the dancer unites with the music at one exhilarating moment of communication. As an artistic director, I live vicariously through their experience of performance. When the audience laughs or cries or applauds, I live step for step with the dancer. You feel a sense of being at one with something bigger than yourself."
When he needs a break from the bustle of the theater, with its hectic, sweaty schedules and stuffy rooms, he likes to hike out into nature, to the mountains or the shoreline, where the crashing of the waves soothe his tensed nerves. In California, he's been to Mendocino, Napa, Monterey, and Big Sur, but he still yearns to someday have a chance to see the forests and mountains of Yosemite. The only problem is that the trip would take a week, and Lustig doesn't now have that kind of time away from the theater.
Since taking the helm of OBC, one of Lustig's biggest innovations so far has been the unique staging of the company's annual December performance of The Nutcracker. The Nutcracker is, in some ways, the quintessential ballet; it's one of the few ballets that almost everyone, even dance Luddites, can recognize by name.
"Every company needs a Nutcracker," said Lustig simply.
It's a rare classic story, like Dickens' A Christmas Carol or Collodi's Pinnochio, that continuously resonates with new generations of fans. The charming classic attracts artists' attention, with dancers finding new ways to reinvent the classic formula for a new audience. In the case of The Nutcracker, the original novella written by German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann is full of strange, gothic twists—like the battle between the nutcracker and a seven-headed mouse king—but the ultimate story at its core of a young girl, dreaming on Christmas Eve about her future love, is one that still touches audiences today.
"It's one of those artworks that's just classic," said Lustig, who noted that the story had given birth to a ballet, an opera, and a play among other adaptations. "It needs to be interpreted and enjoyed from different perspectives." (True to that sentiment, Lustig premiered another Nutcracker interpretation in December with the Lustig Dance Company in New Jersey, this one set in 1960s London.)
The OBC Nutcracker is unusual in several respects—most productions of the venerable ballet set the story in the 1890s Victorian era in which the Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ballet was originally written. But Lustig saw renewed potential for updating the ballet by just a few years, placing it in the Edwardian period of the 1910s. He was happy that the change freed him from having to choreograph movements in unwieldy dresses and restrictive corsets, but more so the change felt natural for the story Lustig wanted to tell. The Edwardian age, marked by rapid social change and the beginnings of the suffragette movement, seemed a natural fit for a story about a girl dreaming about her future.
"The Edwardian era is an important and different time to set it," Lustig said. "Gone are the bell-shaped dresses. This is the time that women are fighting for the right to vote, riding bicycles, and really coming forward. It's a more interesting time but still romantically historical. It's about a young girl dreaming about her future and being in love."
Collaborating with the East Bay Symphony Orchestra and presented at the Paramount Theatre, Lustig's Nutcracker has become an annual Oakland tradition, connecting with audiences in a way that few other ballets do.
"It's a combination of things," Lustig said. "We all have certain traditions in our lives: Every year, we celebrate our birthdays, Christmas, Yom Kippur, Kwanzaa . . . The Nutcracker is rooted in late December tradition for many people. We have some patrons who're now coming for their fourth year. Another ballet wouldn't resonate like that for a lot of people. If you had to do a Cinderella ballet, for example, it wouldn't have the same roots."
But the change in setting is only a small part of what sets Lustig's Nutcracker apart. A man who well remembers the excitement of discovering dance as a boy, Lustig is committed to seeing that other kids get the same chance to recognize a lifelong love. The Nutcracker is an integral piece of Lustig's strategy.
He began OBC's Discover Dance program, in which OBC dancers go into Oakland public schools to introduce underserved East Bay students to the history and art of dance using scenes from The Nutcracker. The dancers involve students in a choreography workshop and question-and-answer session. Over the past three years, OBC has visited more than 20 East Bay schools and performed in front of more than 7,000 students. Of course, not every child will have a passion for dance, but Lustig hopes that understanding the commitment and discipline required will inspire each to think about his own passions.
"Whether or not they decide to become professional dancers is immaterial," said Lustig. "I've seen that if you decide on something as a young person and put a lot of time in it, it helps your confidence and your discipline. Whether it's playing a cello or playing soccer, it's invaluable to do something collective with others."
The annual performance also includes more 40 children, drawn from both the Oakland Ballet School and through open auditions, making it the perfect venue for young dancers to test the waters in a professional production.
"The Nutcracker is more than a performance," said Lustig. "It goes broadly and deeply in the community. Some of these students come from two hours away to be in the show. It's a wonderful opportunity for a young dancer. One year, a dancer will start as a mouse; the next year, she might appear as a girl at the party, then a snowball, then a rat.
Even kids who aren't in the performance have a chance to experience the wonder. Lustig invites students from Oakland schools to attend dress rehearsal for The Nutcracker; annually about 1,600 children come to see the show. When it comes to intermission, Lustig asks the crew to leave the curtain up so the kids can see what happen backstage between scenes, giving them a rare glimpse of the machinery behind the magic.
The year that he joined OBC, Lustig also led the company's first Ballet Boot Camp, an intensive two-week dance and choreography workshop that aims to help local dancers reach their full potential. While many dance workshops require participating dancers to memorize pre-made choreography, Lustig insists that attendees also think about their own choreography.
"It's just the same as with a musician," Lustig said. "You don't just want someone who can play Bach, but someone who can improvise as well. When they think about choreography, they realize they can be creative. It's vital that dancers realize that it's a living art form, and that's something that can be lost if you're just learning by rote."
More than anything, dance is a living, breathing entity that requires constant creativity. After a career of creating striking new choreography, it isn't the big premieres that stick out to Lustig, but the small moments of excitement in seeing a dancer in action that exemplify that spirit to him.
"You're not a theater without so many complements and collaborations that make it possible," said Lustig. "That, to me, is extraordinary. It's such an expensive art form and so ephemeral. You have to live in that moment. It's the beautiful and inspirational moments that make up a career."
Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and frequent contributor to The Monthly.
Margaretta K. Mitchell is a nationally known artist and professional photographer, author, and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. To explore the possibility of Mitchell shooting a portrait for the web or print, an environmental portrait, or a creative portrait of your fantasy persona: (510) 655-4920 or margarettamitchell.com.
Partner approach: Lustig views dance as a collaborative art from. Photos by Margaretta K. Mitchell.
The Oakland Ballet Company performs Oakland-esque, an "inspired evening of dance" featuring four world premiers of contemporary dance works, at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts Theater, 1428 Alice St., at 8 p.m. May 16 and 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. May 17. AXIS Dance Company and Turffeinz join the OBC in this production. Tickets are $20–$35, OaklandBallet.org.
The Oakland Ballet Company's annual fundraiser gala will be held 6:30–10 p.m. on Saturday, May 3, at the Bellevue Club, 525 Bellevue Ave., overlooking Lake Merritt. The evening includes a cocktail and hors d'oeuvres reception, the ballet company dancing highlights from the spring production Oakland-esque, a three-course dinner, and silent and live auctions.
The gala raises funds for the annual December production of Graham Lustig's The Nutcracker at the Paramount Theatre, ongoing educational programs, and the spring repertory season, and enables OBC to fulfill its mission to keep world-class dance viable in Oakland.
"I am very excited to announce our annual gala to support our spring production, Oakland-esque," says Roz Perrazo, president and chairman of the OBC board of directors. "Artistic Director Graham Lustig has master-minded an amazing collaboration of diverse artists who are creating new works inspired by the thriving cultural and arts community of Oakland."
Tickets start at $150 and are available online at OaklandBallet.org, by phone at 510-893-3132, or by mailing a check to OBC, 2201 Broadway, Suite 206, Oakland, CA 94612.