SAN DIEGO — The dance world has long since learned that the art of ballet extends beyond the delicate pointe work and ethereal lifts of classical dance. But is anybody really ready for a ballet on wheels?
Well, ready or not, here comes the L.A. Chamber Ballet to blaze a trail. The Los Angeles-based company will premiere a one-of-a-kind wheelchair ballet during its local debut at 8 p.m. Saturday at San Diego State University's Main Stage Theater. The daring, wheel-driven derivative, danced by a mixed ensemble of company regulars and disabled dancers chosen at open audition, will be one of two new works on Saturday's three-piece program.
"We hope our programs are always surprising and capricious," Raiford Rogers, Los Angeles Chamber Ballet founder and co-director, said in an interview from his Los Angeles studio. "We take great pleasure in taking chances and going out on a limb."
Nevertheless, when the troupe enters uncharted territory with "Wheels," choreographed by Trina Nahm-Mijo, Rogers will be more than a little anxious about the reaction it generates.
"We're an eclectic company, but we're still very nervous about it," he said. "We were afraid it would be perceived in the wrong way (as exploitative of handicapped people). But there are more and more wheelchair events now. It's a dance first, and a wheelchair ballet second. If it succeeds, it succeeds as a dance. And if it fails, it fails as a dance."
Why did the company decide to mount a ballet that focused on wheelchair-bound performers?
"We try to nourish the artistic resources available," he said. "And we had this person (Nahm-Mijo) who choreographs and works with people in wheelchairs. We knew the dance would be stage-worthy, and when we realized that October is National Disabilities Awareness Month, we thought, 'What a wonderful idea.'
"Two of the performers are wheelchair racers, and all of them have had some experience on stage. What the dance is hoping to express is that dance is a universal expression. (That applies) to all people, regardless of their movement range. Some of these dancers can only move an arm or a head, but they all get around."
As Nahm-Mijo conceived the dance, "this is not a dance for the disabled, but rather the integration of dancers and wheelchair performers who have joined together for the common goal of exploring new ideas within the dance itself."
He added, "I created the first 'Wheels' piece in Hawaii in 1979, but this is the first professional company taking it as a serious artistic work."
"A lot of it is the interplay of company dancers and wheelchair people," Rogers said. "They do so many things with wheelchairs, they almost look like Pilobolus performers," who are among the leading clowns and acrobats of the dance world.
Ellen Stohl, one of the disabled dancers in the piece, is convinced that "Wheels" will break a lot of stereotypes about disabled people.
"At times all of the dancers are on the floor, and you can't tell who's able-bodied and who isn't," she said. "At first, some of us felt we were just props, but as we learned, we realized we're equally important in the ballet.
"The neatest thing about the dance is learning a way to carry yourself. You learn that a movement of a finger can be as graceful as the movement in a whole body."
"Wheels" may be the most unusual piece on this weekend's program, but it isn't the only company premiere slated for San Diego during the L.A. Chamber Ballet's visit. The troupe will also be performing "Firebird," which was choreographed by resident choreographer Patrick Frantz.
The acclaimed dance critic Walter Terry once described Frantz's "Firebird" as "a fusion of ballet and modern dance with the almost cabalistic intensity of primitive ritual." San Diegans may remember this striking ballet from local performances by the now-defunct San Diego Ballet. The title role, which virtually teems with pyrotechnics, will be danced by Lesli Wiesner. Former San Diego Ballet dancer Daryl Bjoza is also in this staging of "Firebird."
Also on tap for San Diego is "Lyric Suite," a classical piece choreographed by Stanley Holden. An interesting aside about the choreographer is that he was formerly a principal with the prestigious Royal Ballet and recently returned to the stage to dance en travesti in the Joffrey Ballet's Los Angeles production of "La Fille Mal Garde."
This one-night stand in San Diego opens a new era for the 5-year-old L.A. Chamber Ballet.
"This is the first time we're starting to tour," Rogers noted. "This year, we're going to Santa Barbara, Riverside and everywhere in between."
This new mobility is the result of a steady growth, under the joint leadership of Rogers and co-director Victoria Koenig.
"Every year our budget has doubled, and every year our membership has doubled," Rogers said. "We managed it by taking slow and intelligent steps. We try to stay small (with approximately 10 to 12 dancers). That's been the secret of our success."