Raiford Rogers LA Chamber Ballet

'Where Are You My Love,' 'In C,' 'Ex Machina' and 'Cabin Fever (Part 2)'

by Jeffrey Kuo

June 7, 2003 -- Luckman Theater, Cal State Los Angeles

Sometimes in summer if you devoted an afternoon to the LA County Museum of Art you would be rewarded with a free concert by Raiford Rogers LA Chamber Ballet. That’s where I first saw this company. They did excerpts from “Cocktails with Joey” to a suite of songs by “Joey Altruda and his 18 piece Mambo Orchestra.” I liked it so much I came back the next day for another show. The music was total lounge—scotch on the rocks … a hint of cigar smoke. But the movement was all ballet – strictly dans d’ecole stuff. The effect of “Cocktails” was a little like being back in high school and watching the ‘cool kids’—beautiful, glossy, chic, self-aware. Back at the office, there was even a little social cachet among the right folks for being “hep” to Joey Altruda, “Kingston Cocktails,” etc.

As for Rogers’ choreography, I’m afraid it’s sort of like Smuins’: it’s for folks who either haven’t seen much ballet or who have seen too much. As the critic for the Newark Star Ledger noticed, Rogers’ movement vocabulary is kind of limited. But there is an immense faith at work. Rogers pulls every last dram of glamour found in the deep structure of each step. That’s why I think most phrases are short – an arabesque turn, simple lifts. His dancers often just pose – contraposto is a favorite especially for the women. At least I think it's contraposto (I don't pretend to have any artistic training). The Rogers stage sometimes becomes more like a high fashion catwalk than a performance arena. But, then a catwalk is a performance arena. Rogers’ movement seen again and again, your mind either wanders or you give in and “wallow in narcissism.”

“Where Are You My Love”

“Where Are You My Love” is set to songs by jazz musician, Charlie Haden. It starts out as a tribute to the importance of the lighting designer. In the first few songs, the dancers work lights—either stage lights as in the first 2 pieces or flashlights in the third. The stage has a little theater smoke which enables us to see cones of light playing across the stage and the dancers. The company literally dances with light.

The effect is interesting but only in an unpleasant, academic way – c’mon, we already know Liz Stillwell is a brilliant lighting designer. The remainder of the piece goes pretty well. Ballet movement goes well with all kinds of music and Charlie Haden’s songs are a good fit—cool, urban saxophone and bass sounds.

“In C”

This is probably the first high art piece I’ve seen of Rogers. Set to the score of the same name by Terry Riley, it reminds me of that probably apocryphal story of a music professor who played a minimalist score in class. Afterwards one student commented, if it went on another minute more I was going to scream. But then somebody else said, I was just getting into the music when it ended.

Structurally, “In C” remind me a little of the way a Merce Cunningham work is structured – no, not in any literal way. Their aesthetics are completely opposite. But, Rogers’ choreography tends to feature mostly solos and duets where the dancers run onto the stage for their passages and then when it is over they rush off as another set of dancers rush on. “In C” is all adagio. Even when the momentum builds up and the dancers do petite allegro it’s still adagio.

Actually, “In C” reminds me of other Rogers pieces. I wonder if Rogers doesn’t actually have one ballet which he works again and again, just changing the music. That independence of music and movement—isn’t that also a Mercist idea? One time Joey Altruda – another time Charlie Haden – this time Terry Riley. Liz Stillwell chooses high contrast, no-nonsense lighting and the dancers are costumed in no-nonsense black tights and white tops. My only critique is that the Riley is that it might be louder. The only time I attended a minimalist music performance was Philip Glass at Davies Symphony Hall and the electronics were deafening.

“Ex Machina”

“Ex Machina” is a world premiere set to an original score by Carlos Rodriguez played by cellist Matt Cooker. This is another high concept piece. But haven’t other choreographers shown us the cachet of difficult modernist music? The dancers look great in their unitards. They are Veronica Caudillo, John Funk, Lisa Gillespie, Jack Hansen, Tekla Kostek, and Michael Separovich.

“Cabin Fever (Part 2)”

The final piece was set to music by Amon Tobin and is my favorite work of the evening. Those little movement phrases set off Tobin's music well. I was just on the freeway listening to Tobin’s CD “Supermodified” in my Acura and unconsciously my speed would drop down to 50 then go up to about 80 mph then back down again. Then up again.

It’s still a late night world of dark, cool chic and beautiful people. You can get an idea from the vocabulary of a Tobin review—“bass tremors,” “synth vamps,” “preternatural samplitude,” etc. The music is processed and re-processed with jazzy samples and tricky rhythms.

Processing and reprocessing – that goes for the movement, too. Sometimes the dancers especially the girls just stand in contraposto. Sometimes they just look at each other. There is a section where the girls’ chaine turns in a line towards the audience and back reminds me a little of Laura Dean. But they always look good especially in their Chanel swimwear. What’s wrong with wallowing in such line and form? This is LA after all.

Here’s an excerpt of what Rogers put in the program notes:

"Our most recent work focuses on the examination of pop cultural icons. I’m interested in creating pieces that look at, and then pass through, the veneer of civilization” Raiford Rogers

In another thread, I commented on the difficulties of programming a ballet evening. Personally, I’d love a repeat—it’s a shame there was only 1 performance. I’ll be very interested in what the Sadler Well’s audience will make of this program—a jazzy, pop piece, 2 artsy pieces, and an LA ‘ism. My suspicion is that audiences will quickly polarize into love ‘m and hate ’m camps. Keep us posted, CD friends.

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