Raiford Rogers Modern Ballet presented an historic work, Naivete of Flowers, and a world premiere, Garden of Untamed Roses, on Saturday, August 24th at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal State LA. This was an evening about gradual growth and change, honoring the simplest and most majestic of Mother Nature’s gifts – the flower.

The program showed off some assets that must be noted, starting with a roster of strong technical dancers. The members of this tight ensemble are musically sensitive, and adept at remaining neutral vehicles for the choreography while allowing their vibrant energy to be felt.

Mr. Rogers’ gifts of choreographic stagecraft shone.  Among the tools were his use of groupings, interweaving across the stage, subtle dynamic changes that mirrored the fugue-like voicing of the music, shifts in the sculptural forms via changes in levels from high to mid- or low, and moments when the dancers paused, shifting their gaze toward (or away from) the audience.

The environment met the energy of the movement and music.  The gradually changing animated backdrop of abstract paint was never intrusive, but set the mood. The colors, and the layered shapes and angles were continually morphing from yellows, blues, and greens to pink, orange and scarlet, mirroring the tone of the action on stage. The changes were so subtle that when the eye shifted from the dancers to the background, it was a surprise to see a different color palette.

Lloyd Rodgers’ music was crafted especially for the work. The blending of the instruments voiced a delicate percussive pulsing under melodic runs that carried the viewer/listener through each movement.

The company name bears the words modern ballet.  The dancers embraced the more contemporary forms and motion with the rigor of their ballet training.

Raiford Rogers Modern Ballet - Gustavo Barros in "Naivete of Flowers" - Photo by A. Trelease

Raiford Rogers Modern Ballet – Gustavo Barros in “Naivete of Flowers” – Photo by A. Trelease

The movement and choreographic structure felt like homage to Merce Cunningham’s precise geometry of form, with the weight dynamics of drop and lift associated with José Limón. The visual design and the motion were structured to create architectural and rhythmic interplay.

The rhythms mirrored the pulsing of heart and lungs, and at other times seemed breathless. Every stepping was careful, full turns were executed with careful movement of a flat foot on the floor, in every position in the vocabulary. The arms curved high above or reached broadly to create a sense of extension of every torso bend and leg gesture.  When the continuity was upended with running or circling, it felt like a mammoth change, yet never broke the overall feel. The groupings were like dialogue. A solo dancer would appear, then a duo would join performing related movement or actions in canon, following a previous sequence. A second duo would join and the interplay of limbs become more complex.

Sections with 6 or more dancers fill the space with broad leaps, deft turns and a vibrancy more powerful than the smaller groupings.

This performance illuminated basic concepts of space, time and aesthetic. In many ways it seemed simple, but by no means easy. This type of clarity and feeling of continuity is absent from the popular dance stylings today.  There were no hard percussive stops, nor bouts of intensely acrobatic “moves.” It was more like surfing or sailing – intensively physical, yet a meditative smooth progression along one wave, then on to another. To achieve that flow, and to ensure that the audience is neither hypnotized nor bored requires master craftsmanship, using tools like changes in dynamics that are not so hard-edged, but that make us look up and become curious about what will come next.

It was an evening of fine dancing, technically challenging. It required endurance, control and patience from the highly gifted ensemble of dancers. Every one rose to the challenge.  For the audience, it was a ride, perhaps in a balloon or sailboat.

The 3rd portion of the performance was a world premiere – a ripening of the garden seeded and sprouted in the first 2 acts.  The leaps were more grand, the groupings and weavings among the dancers were more intricate.

The very talented cast included Gustavo Barros, Sadie Black, Bobby Briscoe, Joshua Brown, Laura Chachich, Chelsea Paige Johnston, Hanna Keene, David Kim, Renee Kim, Celine Kiner (understudy), Jasmine Perry, Tigran Sargsyan, and Kristopher Wojtera. The stunning lighting was designed by John A. Garofalo and the Painting Progression was by the artist Mike Nava.

The garden is in full bloom.

Written by Mary Pat Cooney for LA Dance Chronicle, August 28, 2019

To learn more about the Raiford Rogers Modern Ballet, click here.

Featured Image: Raiford Rogers Modern Ballet – Liz Walker and Josh Brown in “Joshua Tree” – Photo by A. Trelease