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“Rainbow Dances” by Queer BIPOC Oakland Ballet is the Future of Dance

Updated: May 13, 2023 18:25
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2 dancer from obc mid air in high jumps

“Rainbow Dances” by The Oakland Ballet Company was an achievement in queer choreography collaborations.

Images courtesy of John Hefti.

“Oakland has a Ballet?” is the usual reply given whenever the burgeoning young troupe is brought up in conversation. This past weekend (May 5th – 7th), the lesser known Oakland Ballet Company took over the modest stage at Laney College Theatre with four presentations of Rainbow Dances – Celebrating LGBTQ Choreographers.

5 dancers in white flowing costumes with 1 mid air in a jump

“Guardians”, choreographed by OBC’s Artistic Director Graham Lustig

A cast comprised of exactly one dozen plus one apprentice lyrical and contemporary ballet dancers, 99% of them BIPOC and queer, and all under the age of thirty. The Oakland Ballet Company is a dark horse ensemble of up and coming superstars in the dance world who light up the stage with interesting choreography, jubilant expressions, and impressive technique with the use of both contemporary music and gender-neutral costumes setting them apart from other local professional dance institutions.

a dancer duo poses in a high leg extension with shiny metallic costumes

“Duet From Exquisite Corpse”, choreographed by Phil Chan

With eight out of the box acts exploring mostly experimental and provocative themes heavily influenced by themes in pop culture, Rainbow Dances is an experience equal parts enchanting and refreshing for any regular patron of the ballet, and a unique gateway for those who are interested in the performing arts but are also somewhat intimidated by the cultural landscape surrounding it.

a male dancer is photographed mid spilt jump

Lawrence Chen flies high in “Solo From Exquisite Corpse”, choreographed by Phil Chan

Athletic, muscular, petite, thick, and visibly queer, most of the dancers do not fit the mold of the rail-thin, long and lanky stereotypical body types that professional ballet dancers have – there is a certain frailty to their willowy frames. The cast of the OBC look more like gymnasts – with strong limbs and rippling muscles, they radiate health, nutrition, and vitality which creates a sense of pause of self-realization that ballerinas could, and probably should look this way.

The OBC cast in rainbow costumes for "Rainbow Dances"

“Club: LC (Love and Consonance), choreographed by Bobby Briscoe

Standout acts included “Duet From Exquisite Corpse”, featuring dancers Logan Martin and Nicole Townsend. An unmistakable chemistry between the two, Nicole has some of the best legs one could ever see on a ballerina and could easily be among the ranks of primas Sasha, Wona, Mathilde, and Nikisha at the San Francisco Ballet in a few years time.

the cast of the oBC in casual street clothes

The OBC at the recent “Rainbow Dances” pop up event at social club The Academy in the Castro

The act “Guardians” is queer choreographer Graham Lustig’s take on angels – a heart wrenching yet visually stunning foray into mental health struggles with a mixed cast, all wearing long, flowing white pleated skirts with matching BDSM-style chest harnesses, performing a very Travis Wahl-style choreography featuring complicated, breathtaking lifts that could have been straight out of TV reality show So You Think You Can Dance.

a dancer in a flowing red costume performs a high kick

“4 Parts Jazz”, by choreographer Alyah Baker

There is an un-ignorable queer eye, style, and energy ensconcing the performers while onstage that pulsates through the entire program and humanizing each dancer, allowing you to see them each authentically as individuals while still playing a character role – something rarely seen in classical ballet where the anonymity and conformity of  “Corps” dancers is traditionally still, rule of the land.

And speaking of the San Francisco Ballet, another standout who is on an immediate trajectory for the big stage is Lawrence Chen, who performed the cha-cha inspired “Solo from Exquisite Corpse” to an uplifting throwback latin tune created by two Chinese composers. Full of all the high flying jumps and quadruple and quintuple (plus!) spins that makes watching cavaliers so remarkably exhilarating, the entire audience was both enchanted and enraptured by the end of Chen’s solo – throwing at least half a dozen long stemmed roses onstage at completion. Lawrence is a no-brainer for classical pieces like the Grand Pas de Deux in “The Nutcracker” with his incredible technical prowess and almost perfect form – a must see star of the Oakland Ballet Company when their 2023-24 season starts back up again in the fall.

the cast forms a straight line and extends their palms to create and illusion that the dancer on stage has multiple arms

Principal Dancer Ashley Thopiah performed a sassy solo at the start of “Club: LC”

The company closed with “Club: LC (Love and Consonance)” donning the bright and shiny rainbow-like costumes namesake of the show’s title and turned the entire auditorium into a veritable disco party with the audience on their feet, clapping and dancing at program’s completion. With original music sampled from The Emotions’ 1970’s hit “Best of My Love”, the audience remained clapping and cheering, persisting for an encore from the breathless and radiant ensemble who had just given the best of “their love”, and the rookie performance of a lifetime.

Despite not having a well known company yet, the Oakland Ballet is positively overflowing with all of the blushing ambition, emerging talent, and unquestionable potential that puts them on the precipice of being one of the best professional dance companies not just in the East Bay, but in the entire Bay Area. Rapidly growing, the OBC both fosters and nurtures burgeoning young talent who are on track to become internationally renowned prima ballerinas and primo cavaliers.

a lift is performed during "Guardians"

Facing severe budgeting challenges that compact the company’s scope in terms of being able to market themselves and compete with the wardrobe and visual departments of some of the bigger companies – there were very little props and no sets whatsoever to speak of at “Rainbow Dances”, with some of the costumes looking second hand or even dancer provided. Despite the numerous setbacks, however, the OBC roster is still able to effortlessly shine; both a remarkable achievement and testimony of the long term vision of the cast, not to mention their collective grace.

soloist in casual sweats performing a split jump

William Fowler, Principal Dancer, The Oakland Ballet Company

The Oakland Ballet’s Rainbow Dances was a contemporary and modern ballet showcase celebrating LGBTQ choreographers brimming with all the determination, grit, and grace that makes Oakland the great city it is. Is it important for Oakland to have a ballet company? Without a doubt. Representation is important, representation matters. When these kids go home, they turn the corner or hop the train down a few stops – not to a posh suburb or high rise luxury apartment building downtown. They look, talk, walk, live, smile, and love the way the folks in the city of Oakland do, they are Oakland – they just happen to be into ballet.

One can only hope that when young, brown, queer or immigrant kids see them on stage performing they’ll know right away that dance is a place for them, too.

For more information on the Oakland Ballet and their 2023-24 season starting this fall, visit:

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Rose Eden

Rose Eden

Rose Eden is a punk rock grown up fashion, culture, music, and satire writer residing in San Francisco on the Upper West Side. She is an Editor at Large at New Noise Magazine, and Out Front Magazine. She additionally contributes to, and, with a fashion column, City Style, on