"Bella Lewitzky once told me that if you want to get more work in Los Angeles, you have to get recognition elsewhere," says Raiford Rogers, choreographer and artistic director of Raiford Rogers L.A. Chamber Ballet.
He's standing in a rehearsal room at the Dancers Studio on Pico Boulevard, where his 11 dancers have been working to a tape of hard-driving cello music. Rogers, who is pushing 50, works right along with them: one-armed lifts, muscular arabesques and deep lunges accompanied by a dissonant, canonic score.
They're finishing up a new work, "Ex Machina," which Rogers hopes will help him prove Lewitzky right. After unveiling "Ex" in a concert at Cal State's Luckman Theatre Saturday, Rogers and his troupe take off for London, where they've been invited to give six performances at Sadler's Wells 1,000-seat Peacock Theatre.The London exposure, Rogers hopes, will scare up bookings in other European cities, but he's just as hopeful that more Los Angeles presenters will take notice. The Luckman concert is the troupe's first full-evening solo outing locally since 1999.
"I've never turned down an invitation," says Rogers, "but we've not been invited to bigger venues like Royce or Cerritos, and I won't rent theaters and ask dancers to dance for free."
Which has meant that the troupe's full-evening concerts in L.A. have been few and far between. In the summer, L.A. Chamber Ballet participates in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's free, outdoor, performance series (Rogers says they use the short appearances to workshop new pieces). The company also engages in school outreach most of the year, which provides a stable source of grant money. And the Luckman commissioned Rogers to create new works as part of the multi-company BalletFest 2001 and 2002 (the 60-minute "Knockaround" and "CF Remix," respectively).
"We're not a traditional company, that's true," says the bespectacled, balding Rogers, who bears a resemblance to Elvis Costello. "It is a conundrum, how one proceeds as a dance company in Los Angeles, how one maximizes its resources. I would love to do a season every year at the Luckman and do more performances in L.A., but funding is difficult."
One thing at a time
Rogers hails from Bad Axe, Mich. He got his dance training at Mexico's University of the Americas and the University of New Mexico, and he danced professionally with the now-defunct Constanza Hool Ballet of Mexico and with Albuquerque Dance Theatre before landing in L.A. in the late '70s, where he found work with teacher and company head Gene Marinaccio. In 1981, he founded L.A. Chamber Ballet with Victoria Koenig, who left in 1996 to devote herself full time to Inland Pacific Ballet, which she started in conjunction with her dance school in 1991.
L.A. Chamber Ballet has stayed alive all these years by working, essentially, project to project -- as commissions and opportunities arise, the company gears up to take advantage of them. This is a typical pattern for local companies, and Rogers shares half of his current dancers with other choreographers, working his rehearsals and performances around other schedules.
"If doing single projects is a way for us to find our own way and spread our wings," says Rogers, "we're delighted and thrilled to be doing this."
Koenig's Inland Pacific operates a little differently from its more traditional base of a school, with an annual "Nutcracker" and other productions that involve a mix of guest artists, some students and a core of local dancers. But when it comes to an all-pro modern ballet company, she says, Rogers' one thing at a time approach is only logical.
"The challenges of having any functioning, thriving dance company producing work at all right now are extraordinary," she points out. "Various people have tried in numerous ways to solve the problem, but it's really every man for himself. I think Raiford has come up with a creative solution of doing projects in order to sustain something manageable, as opposed to running a company."
"Ex Machina" is a 15-minute, three-movement work created especially with the London gig in mind. Rogers, a high school trumpeter who discovered ballet at age 12, says his work begins and ends with the music. In this case, he commissioned L.A. composer Carlos Rodriguez, who came up with a piece for electronically altered solo cello. In the past, Rogers has worked with Joey Altruda and his 18-piece mambo orchestra ("Cocktails With Joey," 1997), jazz bassist Charlie Haden ("Where Are You My Love?" 1995 ) and Los Angeles urban essayist-composer Sandra Tsing Loh ("Cabin Fever," 1996).