The arts are alive and well in Berkeley.
While the rest of the Bay Area seems to be struggling to find its artistic identity and patron base, Berkeley is flourishing. The 17.6 square miles that make up Berkeley proper, house three major education institutions – The University of California Berkeley, the Graduate Theological Union, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. That same small city houses dozens of arts venues – Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Zellarbach Hall, the Greek Theatre, La Pena Cultural Center, Aurora Theatre, Freight and Salvage, Hertz Concert Hall, the Ashby Stage, 924 Gilman, Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center, Berkeley Playhouse, Bay Area Children’s Theatre, Impact Theatre, Berkeley Ballet Theatre, Youth Musical Theatre Company, Shotgun Players, CalShakes, Central Works, Berkeley Moving Arts . . . the list goes on and on
Last night I attended a performance of Swan Lake by the famous Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra at Zellerbach Hall. The young lady sitting next to me commented to her friend that she didn’t think of Berkeley as particularly exciting destination. All evidence around us, though, pointed to the contrary. All 2,015 seats in the auditorium were filled for opening night of the renowned ballet. The audience demographic was surprisingly varied, with people of all ages, sizes, and colors. I must admit that I’ve never seen so many young people at the opera. The audience was enthusiastic and appreciative for the entire duration of the three hour ballet. I’ve never been much for ballet, but I must admit that the remarkable dances, gargantuan orchestra, and the energy in the room kept me fully engaged. It was incredible to look around and realize that every person there was helping to support a classical ballet company traveling with 71 dancers, 67 musicians, a conductor, managers, dressers, technicians, and countless others. I suppose, in a sense, ballet is still part of most little girls’ dreams.
I am currently working at Berkeley Playhouse, where we share rehearsal space in the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts with Berkeley Ballet Theatre. In addition to the nearly 100 students who attend one of our classes or rehearsals every day, I also witness dozens of young ballerinas pouring in and out every afternoon. From the young beginners, to the older girls who are there every afternoon, changing in the tiny bathroom and stretching in the hallway, new aspiring ballerinas are being created every day. In a way, it’s almost ridiculous that so many families are pouring so much money into training for an art form that is very competitive, occasionally unhealthy, and can really only promise a serious dancing career of about ten years. On the other hand, I suppose a similar argument could be made about musical theatre, so I shouldn’t judge. Still, I wonder what it is that is so attractive about ballet. It was never a pastime that appealed to me, but I realize that I am probably in the minority on this one. When you think about it, ballet may in fact be the most popular classical art today.
After the Mariinsky departs, CalPerformances has an exciting season planned. Zellarbach Hall will host a new Philip Glass opera, the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, Yo-Yo Ma, Baritone Nathan Gunn, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and many more.
Berkeley is not just a home for the classical arts. Last Thursday, I was part of the crowd at the 8,500 seat Hearst Greek Theatre for a sold out concert featuring Christina Perri and Jason Mraz. The Greek Theatre was built on the Berkeley campus in 1903. The project was envisioned by University of California president Benjamin Ide Wheeler, was designed by John Galen Howard, and was paid for by none other than William Randolph Hearst. The design of the theater is based directly on the ancient Greek theater of Epidaurus. One of the very first “performers” in the Greek Theatre was President Theodore Roosevelt, who gave the university commencement address in May 1903. The performers have changed over the past 110 years, but the Greek Theatre still stands and still packs an impressive punch. Jason Mraz gave a concert under the Berkeley night sky that I will not soon forget. With an incredible band and a strong message of gratitude, Mraz had the enormous crowd eating from the palm of his hand. There is something very powerful and moving about hearing thousands of voices raised together in song. A performer like Jason Mraz, an active advocate for the earth and peace and love, is the perfect draw for the Berkeley crowd. It is, after all, rated the third most liberal city in the country.
I have to disagree with the girl sitting next to me last night. Berkeley is a destination. At least for the arts. In the past week alone, I’ve witnessed over ten thousand people actively supporting the arts in Berkeley. I spent all of last year working at a theatre company 20 miles away in Concord where it was a challenging just to fill a 210-seat theatre every week. Trust me. There is something very special happening in Berkeley.