Jessica HANNA is watching her husband, Mike Dunn, give birth. He squeals in pain -- or is it delight? -- as he's wheeled on a desk chair by several attendants across a sprung floor in a warehouse in an industrial neighborhood near Atwater Village.
Emerging from this frenzied natal huddle is a tall, young dancer, Robert Porch, who alternates elegant ballet moves with awkward baby waddles.
It's just another vision from the gleefully twisted world of Ken Roht, a choreographer-director-writer-performer and all-around theatrical auteur who matter-of-factly calls his work "avant-garde song and dance -- you know, whimsical, surrealist music theater," as if we all know what he's talking about.
Increasingly, it is clear, thanks to his steadily rising profile in the local theater scene, which last year landed Roht an open-ended $45,000 grant from Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theater Projects and more recently netted him a $46,000 commission from the Eagle Rock Arts Center to create and co-produce "Growing With Ghosts." The 50-minute multimedia dance-theater piece with a cast of 40 -- including Hanna, Dunn and Porch -- will open Friday at the arts center, a former Carnegie Library built in 1917.
To say he works in local theater isn't the whole story. You never quite know where Roht, 42, will turn up next: staging an "interspecies dance ritual" with live snakes in a Frank Lloyd Wright house in the Hollywood Hills; choreographing small theater musicals such as "The Shaggs," or Offenbach's opera "La Perichole" for the Long Beach Opera; singing Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" album in its entirety with a five-member chorus at the Evidence Room or appearing as a subject -- and citywide light-pole poster boy -- for artist Bill Viola's Getty exhibition "The Passions."
A step ahead of the cast
Those were just some of last year's projects, and that list doesn't include the two major productions he produced, directed, wrote and choreographed last year at the Evidence Room, where he's a member: "He Pounces," a dark meditation on the dynamics of male sexuality, and "Splendor: A 99-Cents Only Stores Wonderama," a giddy holiday extravaganza officially sponsored by the discount chain.
It was "He Pounces" that sold Jenny Krusoe, Eagle Rock Arts Center's executive director, on commissioning a piece by Roht, and "Splendor" that convinced her that he could do a show for all ages.
"I think there's something very special about him," says Krusoe, who was introduced to Roht by longtime friend Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW's "Bookworm" show. "Here's someone who has a unique way of looking at the world, but you can bring your kids to it."
Eagle Rock's arts center, which was a library from 1917 to 1964, was presided over for most of that time by bespectacled Blanche Gardiner; the late librarian is rumored to haunt the space, still puttering and putting away books. Roht's "Growing With Ghosts" riffs on those rumors, with 10 spectral Blanches leading a chorus of youngsters from birth onward along a path paved by book learning.
His Blanches are played by men with a median age of, say, 40, and the nine "kids" by a mix of male and female dancers with training ranging from classical ballet to musical theater to Suzuki -- another signature Roht touch.
Indeed, he's known for shaping his choreography to performers of all shapes and sizes without sacrificing a whit of his individual vision and for valuing attitude and gesture more than precision.
"There's no option with a cast but to just go in and do what he says," says director John Langs, who hired Roht to choreograph "The Shaggs" and who will bring him to Chicago for its run there in May. "He doesn't care what your body type is, your dance experience, your background. He stays just a step ahead of the cast, so they don't have time to think about their limitations. And before they know it, they're in his number."
Dancers with extensive training face no less of a challenge.
"Ken takes what I can do and makes it fit his piece," says Porch, who performs regularly with regional ballet companies and has taken this essentially nonpaying "Ghosts" gig for the chance to work with Roht. "He has me break back and forth between being this classical ballet dancer and being a baby who doesn't know anything about ballet, like I'm having my first lesson. With anyone else, it probably would get on my nerves, but I've seen Ken's work and I trust it completely. Even if you don't get to look good or dance well in this one moment, you know it's for an artistic reason."
Adrienne Campbell-Holt, New York-based and classically trained, ranks Roht at the top of his field.
"I've watched Mark Morris, Bebe Miller, William Forsythe up close," Campbell-Holt says. "I've worked with the Wooster Group. Ken, I think, is the most talented person working now. A lot of the work that's coming out now is so influenced by the '60s and '70s or it's using technology, and it's influenced by that. Ken is on a completely other plane. He's not trying to imitate anything. He can sort of take every vernacular -- he'll reference the '20s and then science fiction and then the Wild West. He's very comfortable with all of it."
Unleashing the demons
How did Roht's comfort zone and dance vocabulary grow so large? It's easy to trace his darkly sunny sensibility to two seemingly contradictory influences: Lawrence Welk and Reza Abdoh.
Roht -- in person an almost unsettlingly mellow SoCal dude whose haunted stare often is the only clue to his fiery imagination and fierce will -- grew up in Arcadia, which he describes as an "80% Republican, upper-middle-class suburb." He steeped himself in musical theater and led his high school swing choir, taking inspiration, he says, from the aggressively chipper song-and-dance stylings he'd seen on Welk's variety show. After high school he toured the country with the Young Americans, a squeaky-clean national singing-dancing group that performed for corporate clients.
Though he says he "always had a darker soul than most of the Young Americans," it wasn't until actor Tom Fitzpatrick introduced Roht to Iranian emigre Abdoh in the late 1980s that Roht's demons were unleashed.
Although the iconoclastic theater auteur Abdoh was partly attracted to Roht's musical theater background, he also saw Roht as a pliable leading man -- and promptly put him through a theatrical wringer.
"I did things in the arena of getting naked and doing really radical things in front of people that were a shock to my system," Roht says of his years as a performer and choreographer on such Abdoh epics as "Minimata" and "Bogeyman" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center and "Father Was a Peculiar Man," staged across several blocks of New York's meat-packing district. "I felt like this sort of self-flagellating monk or something."
"Those shows were basically impossible to perform," says Laural Meade, a writer-director-performer who worked with Abdoh then and today is a frequent Roht collaborator. "That was the envelope [Abdoh] was pushing. He would work with you a little while, see what your forte was, then design a role that would not necessarily bring out your best but address things you needed to deal with. Ken was struggling with his own volatility and control issues, so Reza designed a role in 'Bogeyman' where Ken got to go around the stage in a rubber suit and beat people up."
By the time Abdoh died from complications from AIDS in 1995, Roht had already struck out on his own, marrying avant-garde transgression to musical comedy ebullience in a series of cabarets, operas and concerts with his theatrical rock band, Orphean Circus. When Fitzpatrick -- apparently an inspired artistic matchmaker -- introduced him to Evidence Room artistic director Bart DeLorenzo in 1999, Roht found an artistic home.
"What's great about Ken is that he creates his own opportunities," says DeLorenzo, whose first major collaboration with Roht occurred when he gave Roht the reins of the musical interludes in Charles L. Mee's "Imperialists at the Club Cave Canem" in 2001. "No member of this company pitches more projects, and no one has more divergent ideas in different directions than he does. He's an impresario. My only fear right now is that he's going to do so well that we won't be able to work with him."
Not a moment too soon
Indeed, advocates such as Silverblatt hope Roht's star rises high enough to nab him productions in New York and Europe. For now, Roht has several ideas on tap for the Evidence Room -- a beauty pageant musical and something he calls his "Hedwig show," a theater piece with a live rock band onstage. "Last Resort," a "Beckett-like" opera he wrote with composer Curtis Heard, will have an L.A. reading in June.
If this is Roht's year, at long last, it couldn't have come a moment too soon.
"Right before I got that [A.S.K.] grant, I was physically ill because I was not eating well enough," Roht recalls. "I was borrowing hundreds of dollars for rent; it was not a good time for me.
"I'd made the decision to just be an artist. My belief is that I had to make that commitment in order to actually achieve what I wanted to achieve. Now people are fairly convinced that I can put them in a good show. That's a great thing.
"At the moment I'm feeling very empowered," he says. He laughs and adds, "At the moment. I'm old enough to know that ain't gonna last."
Where: The Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock, 2225 Colorado Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Opens Friday. Fridays-Sundays, 7:30 and 9 p.m.
Ends: April 25
Contact: (323) 226-1230