Graham Lustig (middle) with Oakland Ballet dancers Lawrence Chen (right) and Jazmine Quezada (left).
Graham Lustig (middle) with Oakland Ballet dancers Lawrence Chen (right) and Jazmine Quezada (left). Credit: Amir Aziz

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Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement that the state is on its way to fully reopen by June 15 came as a relief to both Oakland Ballet artistic director Graham Lustig and Oakland Symphony executive director Mieko Hatano.

Both Oakland arts institutions were severely impacted by the pandemic. Neither could have in-person shows and relied solely on virtual programming, which did not generate significant earnings. The Oakland ballet’s budget for this year’s season dropped over 50%. The Oakland Symphony’s revenue from performances plummeted 90%. 

But the ballet and symphony managed to survive the year and are ready to entertain live audiences when their fall season begins. The symphony’s opening day is Oct. 15. The ballet is planning its first performance for Nov. 5 and 6 with the return of its Day of the Dead show, Luna Mexicana.

The return of dance and live music to the Paramount Theatre, where both of these institutions perform, comes as a positive sign that it will be safe to gather again to enjoy the arts this year, with precautions in place.

Graham Lustig, Director of the Oakland Ballet Company, outside of the closed Paramount Theater. Credit: Amir Aziz

“I have been cut off from dancing in my regular life, dancers, studio life, rehearsals, choreographers, all of the things that are the lifeline of a ballet organization,” Lustig said. “We’re very, very excited for the future.”

According to Lustig, California’s ongoing rate of vaccination will allow many of the ballet’s dancers to resume in-person rehearsals with no social distancing in the near future. He said dancers are currently being vaccinated or setting up appointments. According to the California Department of Public Health, as of April 13, a total of 23,243,392 vaccine doses have been administered statewide.

“We should all drop to our knees for science and the scientists who were able to create these amazing vaccines that are going to keep us safe,” said Lustig. “It’s a modern-day miracle.”

Even with live events being calendared, the ballet still needs to continue its online fundraising efforts to make up for lost income. On April 22, the ballet will virtually host its “OBC Trivia Night.” Participants will test their knowledge of ballet history, Earth Day trivia, and Oakland trivia. On May 15, the ballet will host its virtual spring gala, called “Uplift.” Attendees will have the opportunity to see the premiere of the film In Plain Sight, which was choreographed by one of the ballet’s dancers, Samantha Bell.

It wasn’t just the Oakland ballet that has struggled this past year. Many of its dancers were impacted financially and professionally and the restart will help these artists get their careers back on track.

“There’s been a lot of worry about the future. A dancer’s career is so incredibly short. Sometimes ten, fifteen years, and it’s over. So, missing a whole year from your career is critical,” said Lustig. “Many of them had to pivot to doing other jobs. It’s been a hard reality for us all.”

As with the ballet, the symphony’s performers and staff are eager to get back to work. 

“After the governor’s recent announcement that there will be no capacity restrictions by June 15, it made all of us feel really confident in the in-person season this fall,” said Oakland Symphony’s Mieko Hatano.

Mieko Hatano, executive director of the Oakland Symphony. Credit: Amir Aziz

Hatano has been frustrated with the “wishy-washy” reopening guidelines provided by the county and the state for indoor events. Although the arts have been an escape from the pandemic, many venue operators and performance groups have been dissatisfied with the level of planning the state and counties have put into helping them resume activities. 

“We’re just so grateful that the governor finally took performing arts and theater seriously and really came up with some guidelines to help us,” she said.

The Alameda County Public Health Department’s restrictive guidelines led the symphony to find a place outside of the county where its musicians could gather in-person to rehearse for their virtual performances. 

“We actually went up to the Mondavi Center in Davis. We really appreciated all the folks up there. The crew and the staff were just so wonderful and safe. And so that was a great experience,” Hatano said. “But, we miss the Paramount. That’s our home.”

“We’re hearing every day more and more of our orchestra members and our choristers being vaccinated,” she said. “They’re just so excited to be vaccinated. Because to them, and to all of us, myself included, it feels like the vaccine equals freedom and a return to the community.”

The Oakland Symphony also needs financial help to continue staying afloat until the in-person season opens up on October 15. While the details of future virtual fundraising events are still in the works, fans can sign-up to receive the symphony’s email newsletter or make a donation.

“I can’t tell you how much we are looking forward to actually being in a venue with the hush sound of the audience and the stage lights on our faces,” Lustig said. “It is going to be an incredible moment.”

Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.