Ramona Kelley: A dancer grows in Berkeley

Daniel Baker, Ramona Kelley, Nicholas Coppula, Eva Trapp- credit: Ruven Afanador)
Daniel Baker, Ramona Kelley, Nicholas Coppula and Eva Trapp. Photo: Ruven Afanador

The big bang of 20th-century ballet was detonated by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a generative explosion that sent creative waves sweeping across the Americas, all the way to Berkeley. With Twyla Tharp in town for a Cal Performances residency to celebrate her fiftieth year as a choreographer on Oct. 16-18, Berkeley’s deep dance history is embodied Ramona Kelley (who connects with Ballet Russe by about three degrees of separation).

The daughter of esteemed Bay Area dance teacher Wendy Diamond, whose numerous teaching positions include an almost three-decade tenure at North Oakland’s Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Kelley grew up in Berkeley attending Oxford Elementary, King Middle School and Berkeley High, where she studied dance with Linda Carr (who’s still teaching dance there with Naomi Diouf Washington.) “Students had a lot of opportunities to choreograph,” Kelley says. “It’s a great program.”

Like her mother, Kelley studied with Bay Area dance legend Sally Streets at Berkeley Ballet Theater, the school she founded in 1981 and continues to teach at as director emeritus. Streets came into the extended orbit of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo after she graduated high school in the early 1950s and joined Ballet Variante, the touring company of former Ballet Russe prima ballerina Mia Slavenska (a troupe that also included Ballet Russe stars Frederic Franklin and Alexandra Danilova).

By the time Kelley came under Streets’ sway the veteran teacher was known best as the mother of New York City Ballet principal ballerina Kyra Nichols, who retired in 2007 after more than three decades with the company. Kelley had immersed herself in hip hop and modern dance as a kid and came to Berkeley Ballet Theater “as a way to round myself off, so I’d have more tricks up my sleeve.”


“My mom is a ballet teacher and she knows how tough that world can be,” Kelley continues. “She didn’t want to push me, and at first I I wanted to be in music videos. But I fell in love with ballet and started taking it seriously. You can spend your life working on it. There’s always more to work on.”

She took classes at LINES Ballet and ODC, and by the time she headed east for college at NYU, she knew she wanted to be a dancer. Kelley got her first major role in a touring production of Come Fly Away, Tharp’s Broadway show based on the music of Frank Sinatra. She obviously caught Tharp’s eye, as the choreographer cast her in the 50th Anniversary Tour.

Rather than drawing from her vast repertory, Tharp created two new dances, “Preludes and Fugues,” which is set to J. S. Bach’s sublimely ordered “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” and the raucous and playful “Yowzie,” a piece featuring a score by Berkeley-raised slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s Hot 9 band with New Orleans pianist Henry Butler (playing the tunes of Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton).

“They’re very different, and both very challenging,” Kelley says. “They both kind of bend the rules a little bit within their world. ‘Preludes and Fugues’ is more classical, the world as it should be, and ‘Yowzie’ is the world as it is.”

With its antic nature and almost vaudevillian sensibility, “Yowzie” explores emotional spaces where ballet doesn’t often venture. “We talk a lot about how it’s much harder to play the comic side than the serious side,” Kelley says. “Twyla says that laughing and having fun and being silly, the body enjoying itself, that’s not as common in our culture, and it’s not our training as dancers. She says we’re dancers and an acting troupe as well.”

Ramona Kelley and Vincent Chavez in Robert Moses' Bloom (Photo: David DeSilva, courtesy Oakland Ballet)
Ramona Kelley and Vincent Chavez in Robert Moses’ Bloom Photo: David DeSilva, courtesy Oakland Ballet

If you happen to miss Kelley with Tharp this weekend, she’ll be back in town soon for the Dec. 19-20 Oakland Ballet production of Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker at the Paramount Theatre. Meanwhile, she’s pinching herself about her debut at Zellerbach, a venue she practically grew up in seeing various shows with her parents and through Cal Performances SchoolTime program.

“We’d walk down Oxford from school to see matinees,” Kelley says. “It’s amazing to get to perform on that stage.”


Recommended gig: Julie Kelly at the California Jazz Conservatory

Photo: courtesy Julie Kelly
Photo: courtesy Julie Kelly

The great Los Angeles jazz singer Julie Kelly makes an all-too-rare Bay Area appearance 8 p.m. Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory. A smart and beguiling interpreter of standards, she’s always looked beyond the American Songbook for interesting material, and she’ll be focusing on songs for her excellent album Happy To Be (Jazzed Media). She performs with veteran drummer Vince Lateano and ace pianist Keith Saunders  (with whom she teaches a masterclass at the CJC Sunday afternoon).

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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