Q & A

Aszure Barton's Awa¦üa - photo by Don Lee 3

Dancers in Aszure Barton’s “Awáa,” photo by Don Lee

The Music Center kicks off a new initiative this summer, called The Music Center on Location. The downtown performing arts center is moving off campus, presenting two smaller dance companies and music artists at the Ford Theatres: Aszure Barton Dance in “Awáa” on Aug. 18 and Jacob Jonas The Company on Aug. 19, in shared program with Tim Hecker and Kara-Lis Coverdale. In October, the Music Center will present British choreographer Akram Khan’s “Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata” at Culver Studios on West Washington Boulevard in Culver City. These are all big steps for this institution, and via email I asked President and CEO Rachel Moore to talk a little about this decision to begin presenting events away from the center’s traditional downtown venues. Below is an edited version of our email conversation.

Laura: How and why did you decide on the Ford as a venue for this initiative?

Rachel: The upcoming music and dance engagement at the Ford Theatres is part of…our commitment to taking the artistic vision of the Music Center beyond our downtown campus to venues across L.A. County and providing even more opportunities for audiences to engage with the arts. It is critical to us, not only as a county venue, but as L.A.’s performing arts center, to serve all of Los Angeles County and to be relevant and accessible to audiences of all interests. Working with the Ford Theatres creates a natural partnership as the newly renovated amphitheater is located in close proximity to the Westside of Los Angeles along with the West Valley and offers an intimate setting for many different artistic genres.

Ana Barros (@anasbarros)

Photo of Jacob Jonas The Company by Ana Barros

Laura: And tell me a little about how you chose to present Aszure’s and Jacob’s companies?

Rachel: The Music Center is presenting highly talented artists, both based in L.A., as well as some pieces that have never been performed here. We are always focused on presenting world-class talent and providing a platform for L.A.-based artists. Aszure Barton is now an Angeleno after recently relocating to Los Angeles. She is a prolific choreographer with strong emotionality. Her piece “Awàa” celebrates sexuality and humanity through movement and will be performed for the first time in Los Angeles. Jacob Jonas is a young choreographer and dancer raised in Los Angeles who combines contemporary ballet with breakdance and acrobatics. His company will perform a new piece commissioned by The Music Center On Location called “On Me,” where the company will explore the idiom “to carry the weight of the world on one’s shoulders.” We are excited to include Jacob’s unique blend of athleticism and dance in our program.

Laura: It is a complicated time for all of the arts. Big performing arts institutions like the Music Center have for at least a decade been trying new ways to reach audiences and to be integral to a broader swath of society. How will the Music Center on Location help and are you worried that by going to smaller venues in other parts of the city, you are stepping on the toes of other Los Angeles theaters, such as the Wallis and the Broad Stage?

Rachel: Much as we would like everyone to be able to visit us in Downtown L.A., we know that just may not be possible! That’s why we created The Music Center On Location. We’re in the early days of this program, but, ultimately, we hope to provide more programming in all five county districts and work with local artists, community groups and other important stakeholders to build relationships throughout the region with the goal of providing even more access to the arts.
What’s more, The Music Center On Location is about creating and building partnerships with arts organizations throughout the region. For example, we may present a future
engagement at the Wallis or the Broad Stage. Our intention is to collectively work together with our colleagues and, in doing so, raise the awareness for the arts across Los Angeles and Southern California.


“Still Life,” photo courtesy Raiford Rogers

Raiford Rogers Modern Ballet’s last local concert was two years ago, when the company presented the debut of “Still Life,” a stirring, three-movement work Rogers choreographed to an orchestral score by Zbynek Mateju. The Czech composer had proposed a collaboration with Rogers via email, and the two worked for more than a year without having a verbal conversation. Mateju sent Rogers excerpts and piano reductions of his symphony as he composed it, and Rogers began conceiving his choreographic ideas based on the music, sketching them out on paper, as he always does. The two finally met when Mateju came to California for the premiere at the Luckman Theater at Cal State LA, and in the fall of 2015, the ballet, which features a backdrop of Ed Evans’ photographs, was performed again in Czechoslovakia. (Here is the Los Angeles Times story I wrote about their collaboration.)

Now the two have made a second piece, “Joshua Tree,” which will have its world premiere on Aug. 12 at the Luckman. The Jacaranda Chamber Orchestra will accompany the dancers for “Joshua Tree” and a reprisal of “Still Life,” and the musicians, on their own, will  perform Stravinsky’s Concerto in D.

Keeping with the theme of conversing via email, I sent Rogers some questions to bring us up to date since the company’s last show in July 2015. Here are his replies.

Laura: So after the “Still Life” premiere, the ballet was performed in Europe. Can you tell me a little about that and any subsequent performances.

Raiford: In September 2015 “Still Life” opened the Golden Prague Festival at the National Theatre. The Gala concert marked the 70th Anniversary of the Prague Dance Conservatory. The ballet was performed by the Bohemia Ballet, which is a company consisting mostly of graduates of the conservatory.  I was asked to set “Still Life” by director Jaroslav Slavicky.  He was familiar with the music of Zbynek Mateju and was intrigued by our collaboration.  After watching a video of the L.A. performance, he invited me to Prague.

Laura: How did the collaboration for “Joshua Tree” come about, and what was your working method this time?

Raiford: Zbynek and I have stayed in contact ever since “Still Life.”  I am inspired, and challenged, by his music. We both share similar ideas in our approach to collaborative pieces. Last year, Zbynek proposed another, longer, collaborative piece.  After visiting Joshua Tree in his first visit to California, he suggested Joshua Tree Symphony.  Last year  Zbynek first started sending me small piano drafts of the piece. He finally sent the finished recording of the symphony around three months ago. 

Laura: Tell me a little about the new ballet. What’s the scenic design for this piece?

Raiford: Mateju’s new symphony (33 minutes) is complex and abstract. My goal as a choreographer in “Joshua Tree” is to uncover the inner narrative of the piece.

The dynamics, tempo, and mood of the music constantly shift. We are using 12 dancers. The set design is a projection of paintings by artist Michael Nava. (We’re using) a projected animation consisting of over 20 different consecutive stages of a painting created by Michael. The artwork slowly evolves over the course of the symphony. The costumes are simple blood red leotards by Yumiko.

There is no story or theme. The mood is reflective and mysterious. The purpose of the ballet is to explore the idea that dance itself can embody sound without the dogma of subjective interpretation. The intent of Joshua Tree is to visualize the imaginative idea of the score without superimposing an artificial narrative.

Click here for more information about the concert and to purchase tickets.

Melissa Barak (photo by Joshua Spencer) was in her late teens, early 20s, dancing in the New York City Ballet corps de ballet, when Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins saw some of the choreography she was working on, and began nurturing her talent. He invited her to participate in the first NY Choreographic Institute and then commissioned her to create a piece for the students at the School of American Ballet. That piece, Telemann Overture Suite, was an audience favorite and a critical success. The next season it was added to the repertory of the New York City Ballet. Martins eventually commissioned three more ballets from Melissa, a boon for any young choreographer, and for a woman especially. She has also made pieces for Sacramento Ballet, American Repertory Ballet and Los Angeles Ballet, where she also danced for several seasons.

But it’s the last piece that Melissa made for NYCB, Call Me Ben (2010), that I asked her to talk about. Call Me Ben, to music by Jay Greenberg, was unusual for several reasons: it was about the gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and it included dialogue for the dancers. Unlike her other pieces, this one was not well-received by critics. Some of the reviews were harsh. (I wrote a feature story for the Los Angeles Times while Melissa was creating Call Me Ben, but I never got to see the ballet.) I asked Melissa if she might be willing to talk about what it’s like when your work receives a drubbing and what impact it had on her. Her comments are below.

Melissa, who grew up in LA and  studied with Yvonne Mounsey at Westside Ballet, is one of  four choreographers currently participating in the National Choreographers Initiative at UCI. An informal, workshop showing of their pieces takes place 8 p.m., Saturday, July 28 at Irvine Barclay Theatre. You can read my story about that here.

You had great popular and critical acclaim for your choreography early on. Call Me Ben, however, did not get great reviews, and I’m wondering if that was upsetting for you? Do you normally read the reviews of your work? What did you think of the comments?

I do read reviews of my work. Reading some of the reviews for Call Me Ben was mostly frustrating rather than hurtful. Many people don’t realize that I was given (by director Peter Martins) the score of music to use, and I knew from the beginning it wasn’t music that I felt something for. But instead of giving up and passing on the opportunity I decided to go against my instincts and take a chance. Before a single review came out, I knew it was going to be a ballet that the critics were going to have a field day with.

 If the criticism bothered you, how did you go forward from there? 

I just decided that at the end of the day I tried something new, something different, something risky, and I had to be proud of that. The music itself didn’t inspire me whatsoever; it was the story of Bugsy Seigel that at least conjured up creative thought in my head. I felt I did all I could with that particular piece of music. I’m not the type of choreographer that can create without music. Music is my guide, and in this case I was trying to create out of a whole different process.

Do you think the reviews have had any impact on your receiving or being considered for other commissions? Has it been harder to get work?

That’s hard to say…. possibly? I know companies are very strapped for money these days and they may not want to take a chance on a choreographer that they feel uncertain about. That goes back to the frustrating part about the reviews I received – Call Me Ben wasn’t a clear example of who I am as a choreographer.

What did you think of Call Me Ben? Are there things about it you would change?

I actually thought there were a lot of good ideas in the ballet. Perhaps a stage at Lincoln Center wasn’t the right venue for something that risky, but I was very proud of the dancers that got up there who spoke and acted. I think we all stepped way out of our comfort zone for that one, and I do know some people who quite liked it. I actually believe the story of Bugsy is perfect for the stage, and perhaps its something I would explore at some later time, but next time to very different music!