OAKLAND BALLET may not be America's biggest or brassiest dance company, but it has a habit of quietly making history. Under Ronn Guidi's direction, Oakland has spent much of the past 10 years reviving neglected works from the Diaghilev era. In 1981 it became the first American company to stage Bronislava Nijinska's masterpiece, ``Les Noces.'' In 1982 Nijinska's ``Les Biches'' was added to the repertory, joining such Ballets Russes staples as Michel Fokine's ``Sch'eh'erazade'' and ``Polovetzian Dances'' and Leonide Massine's ``La Boutique Fantasque.''
On Nov. 10, the company added a new first to its list - the reconstruction of Bronislava Nijinska's ``Le Train bleu,'' which has not been seen since its Paris and London debuts in 1925. After years of knowing the ballet only through old black-and-white photos, it was a pleasurable shock to see it come to life in delectable colors of chocolate, burgundy, black and pink.
``Le Train bleu'' refers to the famous Blue Train that transported chic Parisians to the Riviera. The action, which takes place at the beach after the passengers have arrived, centers on the loves and quarrels of a fashionable quartet of sporting characters. There is a Tennis Champion, a Golfer, Perlouse (a bathing beauty) and Beau Gosse (a champion swimmer).
Diaghilev, as usual, assembled a stellar cast of collaborators to create ballet. In addition to Nijinska, Jean Cocteau provided the libretto, Darius Milhaud the music, Henri Laurens the d'ecor, Coco Chanel the costumes, and Pablo Picasso the drop curtain.
With such names it's no wonder Oakland jumped at the chance to rescue the ballet when it was discovered that Frank Ries, a dance historian at the University of Santa Barbara, had learned the steps from the original star, Anton Dolin. To do the reconstruction, Ries teamed with Irina Nijinska, Bronislava's daughter (and the niece of Vaslav) who worked closely with her mother for many years.
Cocteau, something of the Andy Warhol of his day, wanted to create a ballet of the moment, so ``Le Train bleu'' bristles with props like cameras, dark glasses, and suntan oil (being bronzed was the newest fad), and references to films, musical comedy, and even airplanes. The work was billed as an ``operette dans'ee,'' a danced operetta or musical comedy, and Milhaud's score has a music-hall flavor.
The strongest choreographic elements in ``Le Train bleu'' are the solos and duets for the central characters. The Tennis Champion whacks away at an invisible ball in her amusing solo; the Golfer swings a club in his; Perlouse does plunging jackknife dives in the arms of her partner; Beau Gosse performs acrobatic tricks between ballet steps. It is in these dances that one sees Nijinska's hand most clearly. The images are vivid, the movement angular and sculptural.
It's no secret that during the making of ``Le Train bleu,'' Cocteau and Nijinska were at loggerheads. As Diaghilev's choreographer, Nijinska was obliged to do the ballet, but the serious-minded choreographer had little sympathy for Cocteau's infatuation with fashionable society. At the dress rehearsal, Diaghilev finally intervened, and many changes were made in a frantic 24 hours before the premi`ere. What is not clear, however, is who made those changes. Some say it was Cocteau, others that it was Nijinska at Cocteau's bidding.
It is obvious, when comparing ``Le Train bleu'' to ``Les Biches'' (which Oakland Ballet danced on the same program), that the works are not of comparable quality. As might be expected in light of the tension between Nijinska and Cocteau, ``Le Train bleu'' lacks the unity of an overriding choreographic concept. The dance is constantly interrupted by pantomime so that the ballet proceeds in fits and starts. In addition, the group movement has little of the architectural strength that is Nijinska's hallmark.
The questions of where the origin of such problems lies is one that haunts dance reconstructions. Was it at the beginning, when Nijinska was overworked and out of sympathy with Cocteau's conception? Was it during that long night before the opening, when the ballet was substantially reworked? Has more of the choreography been lost than was thought? Or is it that the rehearsal time was too short for the young Oakland dancers, or that they are not completely up to the rigors of the choreography? Of course, in the ephemeral world of dance, one can't go back to the original text; so such questions may never be completely answered.
On the other hand, although ``Le Train bleu'' was a hit when it premi`ered, no one ever called it a masterpiece. It was intended as a showcase for the young, extremely handsome Anton Dolin, whose ability to do acrobatic stunts was incorporated into his dances as Beau Gosse. In the 1920s the ballet was considered good fun, and it still is. Coco Chanel's sports costumes, including a number of bathing suits, are luscious. Laurens's brown and beige, Cubist-inspired d'ecor of sand, bathing cabins, and diving fish is lively and handsome. Picasso's drop curtain has nothing to do with the ballet, but his image of two monumental women gamboling on the seashore looks marvelous blown up to giant scale. ``Le Train bleu'' is not simply a confection, either. It comments with wit on the vanity of the social whirl and on the technology and fashions of the times. If its choreography does not emerge with the strength and invention one might have hoped, ``Le Train bleu'' is still a work that brings many pleasures.
East Coast audiences will have a chance to see ``Le Train bleu'' when Oakland Ballet performs March 10 at the State University of New York's Stony Brook campus.