For 31 years, Raiford Rogers has given Los Angeles distinctive chamber ballets, immediately recognizable for their linear designs, meditative minimalism and musical acumen.
Seeing how we like round numbers for anniversary parties, a celebration would have been warranted at last year’s Raiford Rogers Modern Ballet concert. But that one fell on Carmaggedon weekend, turning attendance into a bit of a car wreck (to go with the metaphor).
So what the heck, let’s commemorate now. The company’s annual gig took place Saturday at Luckman Fine Arts Complex, and Rogers and his 11 dancers premiered two pieces and reprised two others.
Staying true to one’s artistic vision might seem a natural course, inevitable even. But it’s in fact no easy task. Rogers’ unique choreography bucks the trendiness of turbulent gymnastic movement patchworked together at its most titillating. Rogers’ taste in comparison is more subtle, chaste even. In his best work, the slower pace and hush of unity and sustained and streamlined body positions lift the viewer out of the theater to some pristine and faraway environment.
Rogers’ pieces have, of course, evolved since 1981, when he and Victoria Koenig co-founded Los Angeles Chamber Ballet with a missionary zeal for new ballet. Initially working without classics or dancer hierarchies, they collaborated with California composers, visual artists and other dance-makers. For Rogers, music has always been the driving force of inspiration, and his tastes are catholic, encompassing the impassioned vocals of Roy Orbison to bossa nova to an original score from Sandra Tsing Loh, the Los Angeles writer and performer (who was in the audience Saturday).
Rogers changed the company’s name in 2002 after Koenig left to form Inland Pacific Ballet. The fire of creative collaborations still burns, though, as demonstrated in 2006 by “Transcription,” which featured a video backdrop of Los Angeles street scenes shot from a slowly moving car. Frequent collaborator Monique L’Heureux successfully softens the ballets’ hard edges with impressionistic lighting designs.
Of late, Rogers has found a cerebral harmony with the compositions of J.S. Bach. In Saturday’s four-part premiere, “Preludes in a Landscape,” Rogers bookended three pieces by the Baroque composer around a section to John Cage’s “In a Landscape” (1948; all the music was recorded). It made for a spare but lyrical abstraction. Rogers interpreted the dreamy quality of Cage’s melodies with loose undulations. For the first two Bach sections, Rogers’ more formal patterns shifted from mostly unison group movements into duets and trios. The dancers returned to a stretched “X” position and a slightly tilted, grounded stance, contrasting nicely with luxuriously high penché arabesques.
The petite and confident Erica de la O was paired with the tall and muscular Bobby Briscoe for a duet that seemed to fill the stage. Randolph Ward was similarly striking in a solo of viscous motion accented with staccato rhythms in the final part.
“Three Pieces for Piano” (2011), to works by Liszt, Takacs and C.P.E. Bach, was similar in tone but with suggestive romantic overtones. Rogers broke up the unison by moving the dancers in advancing and retreating lines, timed to the musical arpeggios. Ashley Ellis, Amanda Peet and De la O — who folded herself like a Swiss Army knife — were standout soloists.
The evening’s two shorter pieces were earnest misfires. In “Chanel” (2002), to Latin beats by Amon Tobin, the cast semi-strutted like mannequins, not quite going all out with the high-fashion vogue but not satirizing it, either. The new “Reckoner,” to the Radiohead song of the same name, suffered from a similar meandering, not sure what it wanted to be.
Too bad, however, that we have to wait another 12 months for more of Rogers’ inspiring vision. Happy anniversary, Raiford.