If John Cage had not been born with his name, he would have had to invent it. It serves as a reminder of all the conventions he was trying to break free of in his music, his spirituality and his life.
A Zen Buddhist, his open-mindedness allowed him to consider not just notes, harmonies, melodies, and rhythms but all sounds traffic, jet noise, alley cats fighting as music. He sometimes consulted an ancient Chinese divination text to help inform his compositions.
Cage famously composed 433, in which there is silence for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The New York Times reviewed it with no words.
But before establishing his mysterious public persona, Cage wrote what Raiford Rogers, artistic director and choreographer of Raiford Rogers Modern Ballet, calls these beautiful little piano pieces.
I took master classes in the 1970s with Merce Cunningham and got to know (his life partner) composer John Cage, Rogers wrote. Before and sometimes after the classes Cage would sit and play the beautiful Bach Preludes. He referred to it as church music, and anyone whos been to a church in their life would have heard this music.
Cages seminal piece In a Landscape was written in 1948. Its a beautiful but unstructured atmospheric trance-like piano piece, very important in the music world, Rogers explained. Cage usually resisted stating his influences. He didnt like to talk about it but he told me yes, Bach was an inspiration for the piano works.
Rogers pairs Cages In a Landscape back to back with those Bach Preludes in a new ballet Preludes in a Landscape premiering on July 14.
For more than two decades, Rogers created ballets from his rent-controlled Santa Monica apartment. I just counted up 50 ballets in about 30 years of choreographing, he said. Im blessed because Ive been able to get support from corporations and foundations and maintain my own voice as a choreographer.
By age 10, Rogers was a professional musician and actor. A native of Bad Axe, Mich., he went to high school in Lansing, Mich. where young men did not grow up to be dancers. I told friends and family I was studying theatre. Like Billy Elliot, I was hiding my ballet slippers. But it dawned on me that dance was the combination of theatre, music and movement, it had everything. He also assisted the choreographers, gaining him the apprenticeship that would take him off in his own artistic direction.
From Amsterdam School of the Arts, he went for his college degree (a promise to his father) at University of the Americas, working with Constanza Hool, co-founder of Ballet Folklorico de Mexico. She was a famous choreographer and had one of the longest running TV shows in Mexico. I was living a great life there, dancing, assisting her, and getting a lot of really bad ballets out of my system.
At University of New Mexico, he danced with Albuquerque Dance Theatre and Santa Fe Opera, moving to Los Angeles in the 1970s as part of Gene Marinaccio American Concert Ballet. By the early 1980s, he and co-artistic director Victoria Koenig founded Los Angeles Chamber Ballet.
Among its memorable accomplishments was a collaboration between three choreographers (Rogers, Koenig and Patrick Frantz), artist/set designer Mark Stock and an original live score by contemporary classical group Cartesian Reunion Memorial Orchestra, based on the beloved childrens tale, The Little Prince, produced in 1987.
When Koenig moved on to run Inland Pacific Ballet in 1992, Rogers continued working under his own name. Hes a one-man band who choreographs, recruits dancers, rehearses, finds costumes, fundraises, manages the companys business and sweeps up after performances. The company has performed in New York and London as well as L.A.
Story ballets like the Little Prince are not typical of Rogers. I asked him why he calls his work modern ballet.
I like the technique, the structure the discipline of ballet, but I like the freedom and the lack of rules in modern dance, essentially anything goes. I use modern because its a historical term. Few people know that modern dance really started in North Hollywood in 1915 at the Denishawn school, where Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Jose Limon, Doris Humphrey got their start. I count them among my biggest influences.
He continued, The foundation of dance is ballet. The biggest difference is that ballet has a vertical carriage, the lift is upward, where modern dance is more grounded, earthy, organic. What I am doing specifically is influenced by contemporary European choreographers, like Antony Tudor, John Cranko and Jiri Kylian, from the 1950s and 60s.
About his process Rogers says, Beethoven used to play Bach and hed say, just play the notes. If youre reading a book and the story is good, you dont notice the pages. Architects say if youre in a great building you dont notice the shape of the windows, you notice space and light in it. Im trying to get to this in my dances, too. I tell dancers that I essentially dont care about the steps. I dont want the music to be interpreted, I want them to embody it. I hate when I watch a show about dancers and theyre told, Let me see your pain, I call that angst in the pants. I want to see whats really honest.
Raiford Rogers Modern Ballet performs at Luckman Fine Arts Theatre at Cal State L.A. on Saturday, July 14 at 8 p.m. Tickets at Ticketmaster or the box office at (323)343-6600. In addition to Cage and Bach, youll hear Radioheads music set to ballet.
Keeping it local
Two Santa Monica artists will be part of Come In! Les Femmes Group Show at the A&D Architecture and Design Museum, July 12 to Sept. 8. Amy Jean Boebel and Gwen Samuels of Santa Monica Art Studios are two of 25 women designers who will transform the museum space. Opening reception is July 12 at 6032 Wilshire Blvd.; aplusd.org. See what Boebel and Samuels are up to at: amyjeanboebel.com/home.html or http://www.gwensamuels.com.
Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She reviews theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.