Dance review: Raiford Rogers Modern Ballet at Luckman Theatre

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Ballet slippers have never been a perfect fit with the towering oeuvre of Ludwig van Beethoven, though daring choreographers continue to wade into his roiling musical waters.

Los Angeles’ Raiford Rogers, who likes an aural and intellectual challenge, is the latest to do so. His “Hammerklavier,” for the Raiford Rogers Modern Ballet, had its world premiere Saturday at Cal State LA’s Luckman Theatre.


Rogers selected a single movement from three separate Beethoven piano sonatas and crafted a dance sonata (No. 29 in B flat major, the “Hammerklavier”; No. 30 in E major; and the “Arietta” movement from No. 32 in C minor; all recorded). They could be viewed as separate works – the curtain came down after each, and the dancers changed from attractive red leotards into black ones, then gray (costumes by Yumiko). But recurring themes made “Hammerklavier” more rewarding as a whole, and without the first two, the final “Arietta” might not have had its cathartic punch.

Rogers’ abstract dances are like the freehand drawings that he once used (and maybe still does) as a prelude to composing with his dancers. His “language” is spare, self-possessed, rigidly plotted, with the dancers simultaneously grounded (women in slippers, not toe shoes) and yet so stretched that you could imagine giant puppetmasters pulling strings on the dancers’ hands. These specific qualities often set the dance in relief, or opposition, to Beethoven.

In the weaker passages, especially with all 12 dancers promenading and lifting legs in unison, it looked like adagio class. In the best and final section, Rogers freed the performers to create flowing transitions, and the bodies’ weaving lines added complex and colored tones. Tekla Kostek’s sustained arabesque penché oozed drama, and we recognized it when it reoccurred.

Oversized portrait photographs by Ed Evans towered on the backdrop during the opening “Hammerklavier” section, lending interest, if not meaning. The dancers brought exacting delicacy and assurance to work that required uncommon strength in its sustained balances. Bravo to them.

The evening closed with Rogers’ “Ostinato in C” and “Poquita Fe,” both nicely done. This viewer, however, was still ruminating on Beethoven.

-- Laura Bleiberg


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