On March 16, the Oakland Ballet Company showcased its captivating performance of the “Dancing Moons Festival” at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. This proclaimed “celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander choreographers” was refreshingly contemporary, moving away from the traditional Eurocentric mode of ballet.
Composed of two unrelated acts, the production comprised an outstanding and eclectic array of dances, with performers dancing to everything from abstract industrial music to the sound of falling rain. All the performances took place in the center of the room, with the audience sitting on the perimeter of the stage to make for a wonderfully intimate experience.
The first act began with “Ballet des Porcelains,” also known as “The Teapot Prince,” an 18th century divertissement which was almost entirely forgotten after 1741. In 2021, choreographer Phil Chan was commissioned to recreate the ballet using only the remaining score and libretto.
While the original narrative promoted Asian stereotypes, Chan’s stunning adaptation altered this to instead advocate for better Asian representation. Chan is also the co-founder of “Final Bow for Yellowface,” an organization that works to eradicate derogatory and stereotyped portrayals of Asian people on the stage.The resulting dance was surreally beautiful with an underlying element of campy humor.
During the second act, the Oakland Ballet premiered a new ballet called “Exquisite Corpse,” again choreographed by Chan alongside Seyong Kim and Elaine Kudo. This series of dances was inspired by a game in which players take turns to draw sections of a body on a folded piece of paper without knowing what the previous person has drawn, creating a strange figure in the process.
Nine different bodily sections were created by the choreographers and stitched together to create one “Exquisite Corpse.” This concept shone through on stage with every dance emerging as incredibly different from the last, creating a highly intriguing, if not slightly chaotic, second act. Although the creativity of the idea must be praised, nine separate dances was a little difficult to digest in such a short period of time.
A highlight of the show was the dance titled “Amber Waves,” choreographed by Chan. This deeply emotional duet depicted the evermoving tide of a romantic relationship with incredible vulnerability. The combination of the piano solo by Min Kwon and the close staging meant that the audience could hear the dancers’ every breath, adding an intense intimacy.
To contrast, the following dance “Layer Upon Layer,” by choreographer Caili Quan, began with the meandering sounds of a kubing — a Philippine jaw harp traditionally used to communicate between family and loved ones. During this piece, the music suddenly stopped while the dancers impressively continued to move in sync to the silence. The narrative of this piece was difficult to pin down, but the dance was truly striking.
While the staging worked well for the performances that involved two to three dancers, it fell a little flat when it came to the large group dances. The stage was too small for such a large volume of people, causing the group performances to feel clumsy and overwhelming in comparison to the other dances.
The “Dancing Moons Festival” highlighted a racially diverse group of ballet dancers that reflected the diversity of Oakland. Coupled with Chan’s mission to eradicate Orientalism on the stage, the wide range of music, costume and ballet styles allowed the performance to step away from the confines of Eurocentric ballet and demonstrate the full scope of what contemporary ballet can be.
Events such as the “Dancing Moon Festival” are wonderful examples of the work that the Oakland Asian Cultural Center does to help encourage intergenerational and cross-cultural understanding, and they make for a far more culturally rich and integrated local community.