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Ballet Noir : The L.A. Chamber Ballet collaborates with jazzman Charlie Haden on a Chandleresque program.

August 06, 1995|Jennifer Fisher | Jennifer Fisher is a frequent contributor to Calendar

'The running joke this week," says Raiford Rogers, co-artistic director of Los Angeles Chamber Ballet, "is our new slogan: 'Chamberettes Are Cool.' I remind the dancers that technique is important and expression's important, but what we really want is for you to be cool at all costs."

Is he kidding? Absolutely. Well, sort of--he's laughing, but he's also seriously grappling with the cool concept, choreographing a jazz noir ballet. It's a task that requires him to negotiate a perilous path between what passes for hip and the real thing.

Perhaps the challenge was inevitable. Last year, Rogers found himself on Buzz magazine's 1994 list of "The 100 Coolest People in L.A." He got his share of flak--being on such a list is what some people would call un-cool--but he also got the chance to meet fellow listee Charlie Haden.

Rogers was already a big fan of the jazz bassist's work with Quartet West, especially his recent Grammy-nominated CDs "Haunted Heart" and "Always Say Goodbye," which are an evocative blending of current compositions and smoky vintage vocals, movie fanfares and film noir dialogue. At the Buzz reception for its honorees, Rogers suggested a Haden/Chamber Ballet collaboration, and with minimal fuss (cool people are like that), dates were set.

The result will be presented Saturday and next Sunday at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex, on the campus of Cal State L.A.: a set by Quartet West, a new ballet by Rogers to taped selections from "Always Say Goodbye," and a third somewhat improvisatory act, called "Merge," with both groups on stage.

"It's a much bigger risk on my end," says Rogers just before a Sunday afternoon rehearsal at a studio in West L.A. "Everybody knows that the music's phenomenal, and they might say, 'Well, why did you mess with it?' " He laughs heartily--and maybe a little nervously--and then reminds himself of his love of risk-taking.

It's a fact confirmed by the record of the 14-year-old Chamber Ballet, which he co-founded with Victoria Koenig. Their repertoire has included the balletically offbeat (a suburban satire; a ballet with libretto by Woody Allen), as well as music collaborations like their program with Lo-Cal Composers Ensemble at the Japan America Theatre last summer. But this is their first experience with a jazz great, a man Time magazine just called an "instrumental Olympian" with soul to spare.

Hence the call for coolness as rehearsal begins for "Where Are You My Love?," the ballet that will be performed to taped music. An epic-noir mood is set by the strains of Max Steiner's romantically sinister music for "The Big Sleep," and Bogie's voice announcing that his name is Marlowe. Then the mellow sounds of Quartet West fade in, Haden on bass; Ernie Watts, tenor saxophone; Alan Broadbent, piano; and Larance Marable, drums.

Dancers are alternately tossing off perfectly square pirouettes and trying out relaxed, minimal positions, which Rogers only half-jokingly compares to "something the Sharks or Jets would do," in "West Side Story." For anyone who has seen George Balanchine's jazzier neoclassical work, the combination is familiar.

But the style isn't Balanchine; it's looser, with more relaxed torsos, more use of the floor, and an occasional nod to by-gone cinematic glamour. An already striking section, after only a week of rehearsal, is one in which dancers move languidly through angled poses in geometrical formations, while focusing large silver flashlights on themselves and others.

On the sidelines, lighting designer Liz Stillwell is having a first look, deciding how to dramatically enhance a scene already soaked with saxophones and dominated by '40s crooner Jo Stafford singing about weathering any storm "if we're alone together."

"The greatest challenge of this piece is to avoid all those jazz cliches," says Rogers. "There are no trench coats, and there are no head throws that are in jazz dance. Charlie was so good at suggesting the conventions of film noir in his music, without sinking into cliches, and I have to do the same with the dance."

For his part, Haden seems unworried--well, cool really--about any possible pitfalls. He's never seen Chamber Ballet, but he and his wife Ruth Cameron have often enjoyed dance concerts and were impressed with Rogers' enthusiasm. And since Haden has had four decades of successfully pooling talents with other artists (Time magazine calls his new gospel-based album with Hank Jones "an informal jazz eucharist") as well as founding and teaching in the interdisciplinary jazz studies department at CalArts, he seems always ready for more merging.

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