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Showman, with a twist

THEATER

Director and writer. Choreographer and performer. Surrealist too? Ken Roht is all over local theater.

March 28, 2004|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

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.

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