As a teen-ager, Genevieve Salbaing didn't follow the pack. "When I was 15, all my friends were buying lipstick," the native Parisian said recently. "I'd spend all my weekly money to buy jazz records."
Salbaing's musical passion endured, and from it sprang Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, which she co-founded in 1972. At 68, she remains artistic director of the 12-member Canadian troupe, which performs various fusions of classical ballet, modern and jazz dance. It appears at 8 tonight at Orange Coast College's Robert B. Moore Theatre.
The company aims for foot-tapping exuberance, humor and accessibility, said Salbaing, on the phone from Guadeloupe in the French West Indies, where she was on vacation.
"Jazz music is made for dancing," she said in her thick, lilting French accent. "You hear jazz, you tap your foot, and you start to move. You react to jazz with your guts, and that's it. This is not something you will look at and wonder what it is. It's not the intellectual type of dance you'll see in some companies. It's more readily available."
The members of Les Ballets Jazz, which tours worldwide, are trained in each dance form apparent in the ensemble's choreography. Saturday's program includes the swinging big band sounds of Stan Kenton, a Stravinsky score composed for the orchestra of clarinetist Woody Herman, a contemporary piece written for the company by Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, and a tango by Argentine Astor Piazzolla. It will be the company's second local appearance.
Other composers featured by the company include George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson (also commissioned for an original score), Keith Jarrett, Laurie Anderson, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Quincy Jones, Janis Joplin and Tom Waits.
Before starting Les Ballet Jazz, Salbaing danced ballet and did choreography. After studies in Paris, she married and moved to America, where she performed for three years with a small, all-female company in Washington. "All the men were on duty in the war," she said.
In 1946, she and her husband moved to Montreal. Today, Canada has three major ballet companies: Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada. But when Salbaing arrived, she found a wasteland.
"It was the Middle Ages as far as dance was concerned," she said. "But then TV arrived, and I got involved in dancing and choreographing for TV. That was all that existed (in dance) at the moment."
Concentrating on choreography, Salbaing soon felt confined by a balletic lexicon.
"The classical vocabulary was wonderful but not wide enough to do everything I wanted to do," she said. "That's how I started to learn jazz technique. And that's how I created Les Ballets Jazz. . . . There was no company dedicated to jazz music."
Salbaing no longer choreographs but selects works by sizing up each season to determine "whether I want to add something dramatic or just plain dance," and then commissioning choreographers. "Sometimes it works, and once in a while it doesn't," she said wryly.
Les Ballets Jazz, probably best known for its buoyant, breezy style, has evolved somewhat, Salbaing said. Her initial thrust was predominantly lighthearted fare. But she has added works reflecting other, more serious or somber shades of jazz music.
And, though she speaks of an immediate, visceral appeal and contrasts her company with an "intellectual type of dance," Salbaing nonetheless asserts that "it's not that (her company) has nothing to say." The troupe now performs pieces that address such themes as social alienation and nuclear devastation.
Salbaing added that "there's more than meets the eye" to "Appearances," a piece on Saturday's program by American Lynne Taylor-Corbett, who choreographed the movie "Footloose." The work looks at the feminine side of men and masculine traits in women. Other dance makers to be represented Saturday include John Cranko, former artistic director of Germany's Stuttgart Ballet; Argentine Mauricio Wainrot, whose passionate "Libertango" is set to Piazzolla's tango score, and Brian Macdonald, resident choreographer of Montreal's Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and a director and choreographer of musical comedy.
Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal will dance today at 8 p.m. at the Robert B. Moore Theatre at Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road , Costa Mesa. Tickets: $10.50 in advance, $12 at the door. Information: (714) 432-5880.