L.A. Dance Project Ace Hotel
L.A. Dance Project performing Justin Peck's “Murder Ballades.” Photograph by Laurent Philippe

Reflections

L.A. Dance Project at the Ace Hotel

Performance
L.A. Dance Project: Mixed Repertory
Place
The Theatre at Ace Hotel, Los Angeles, California, February 20-22, 2014
Words
Victoria Looseleaf

Dance, architecture and Hollywood came together in a big way when L.A. Dance Project began its residency (performances are also scheduled for the fall) at the new Ace Hotel. And no, this was not a site-specific work danced on the rooftop by the troupe Benjamin Millepied founded in 2012 as an artist collective along the lines of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, but a bona fide concert presented on stage of the hip hotel’s theatre.

Built in 1927 by the United Artists film studio, co-founded by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith, the recently refurbished 1,600-seat venue is one of a handful of opulent showcase palaces that dot Broadway and were built exclusively to screen films. Designed by architect C. Howard Crane, the theatre, inspired by Pickford’s love of European Gothic and Spanish castles—both gaudy and enticing in equal measure—opened its over-the-top doors on December 26, 1927.

With downtown Los Angeles undergoing a renaissance, to install a dance troupe in this bastion of boho chic (the historic theatre occupies three floors of the 13-story building, with 182 guest rooms situated on top of the cinematic gem), is good news for all concerned.

If only the actual performance had been better. With two United States premieres (the 8-member troupe has been little seen in its namesake town, mostly touring internationally), and a 12-minute peek at Hiroaki Umeda’s “Peripheral Stream,” a work that premieres in Paris next month, the evening offered a glimpse of what money can buy for a dance company. (Its budget, according to co-founding producer Charles Fabius, is between $1.7 and $2 million.)

Millepied, 36, is a former New York City Ballet principal who choreographed Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 ballet-cum-horror film, Black Swan, and then married its Oscar-winning star, Natalie Portman. He assumes directorship of Paris Opera Ballet later this year, and it was also recently announced that L.A. Dance Project will collaborate with Los Angeles’ Colburn School, a performing arts institution, to found the Colburn School Dance Academy, with its inaugural class entering this fall. Millepied, the apotheosis of multi-tasking, is slated to be its artistic advisor. But money and prominent appointments can only go so far before actual choreography is taken into account.

Opening the program was Millepied’s 2013 work “Reflections,” commissioned by high-end jewellers, Van Cleef & Arpels, the first of a proposed trilogy of dances inspired by gems (if it sounds Balanchinean, this was anything but).

Visuals were provided by art star Barbara Kruger: Giant red billboard-like backdrops and floorscapes included panels featuring the words, “Stay” and “Go,” although audience members seated in the orchestra, including this one, had no idea there was any verbiage on the floor. Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lang’s minimalist score, performed live by pianist extraordinaire, Gloria Cheng, also added panache to the predominantly aimless 30-minute work, a quasi-meditation on love, loss and, well, indecision.

A series of duets, solos and unisons was mainly an exercise in arm-flailing, with flashes of brilliances found in the stellar dancing. Morgan Lugo and Julia Eichten displayed swooping legs, their push-pull relationship offering fleeting lyricism. Firebrand Charlie Hodges—talk about fabulous feet—spun scherzo-like (who knew this former Twyla Tharp dancer has an inner b-boy), his hummingbird-like beats swoon-worthy. A lanky Nathan Makolandra, arms akimbo, and hip-swaying Rachelle Rafailedes, made the best of Millepied’s anemic choreography that also featured running, crawling and neo-fox-trotting.

Umeda, a 36-year old Japanese dancer/choreographer, offered his signature electronic soundtrack and oscillating black and white video grids that occasionally overpowered, indeed, nearly eclipsed/engulfed the four dancers. A study in isolation, the excerpt’s visuals—like a television on the snowy fritz (is there still snow in this HD, antenna-less era?)—were counterpart to irritating static that vacillated between low level pops, buzzes and clicks to full-blown noise bursts capable of short-circuiting synapses (a kind of torture technique seen on the hit show Homeland), both aiming to enhance the quartet’s spasmodic moves.

Makolandra, Lugo, Rafailedes and McKenna Birmingham rebooted their training in order to accommodate Umeda’s movement style: They jerked robotically, walked stiffly, and executed slithering lunges that rapidly morphed into exaggerated backward bends. An occasional leap from the men seemed to conjure sayings from the past, including the Star Trek catchphrase “Beam me up, Scotty,” and newscaster Dan Rather’s mystifying question “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?”

This preview prompted many in the packed house to make hasty exits. But those who stayed were treated to Justin Peck’s “Murder Ballades,” also from 2013, a jubilant 20 minutes to end the evening on a high.

A City Ballet soloist, the 26-year old is making a name for himself as a choreographer, the influence of Jerome Robbins evident (think the sense of community found in “Dances at a Gathering”). Set to a score by Bryce Dessner, composer/guitarist for rock band, The National (basing his music on American folk ballads from the 1930s and 1940s, it was heard on tape by the chamber ensemble eighth blackbird), the opus featured Sterling Ruby’s riotously colored collage-like backdrop and six high-octane dancers clad in Peck’s street wear, including sneakers.

Shades of Agnes de Mille and Aaron Copland—i.e., homespun Americana—were also on display, as connections were forged, between ballet and contemporary idioms, between the dancers themselves, and with the audience. Hello, emotions! The raucous score, ranging from march-like percussion and flute to jig-like music, proved the perfect accompaniment for this lively dance that saw Aaron Carr move jubilantly with Eichten, Rafailedes twirling maniacally, and trios facing off and high-stepping, their buoyant energy infectious in a hoedown sequence.

Whether it was boy meets girl or boy meets boy (Hodges, again a kinetic force of nature, and Lugo), Peck’s choreographic acumen was fresh and vital.

But the question of L.A. Dance Project crashing through the Marley ceiling and being a catalyst for more dance to flourish in the City of Angels, remains to be seen. A planned fall season sounds good on paper, and making use of local artists like Kruger and Ruby is also positive, if expensive. Los Angeles, the birthplace of modern dance, needs more than the occasional star attraction to get itself back on the terpsichorean map.

  1. Nice summation Victoria.

    My colleague and I too were almost more impressed by the grandeur of the theatre than the show itself. While the dancing (go Charlie!) was as fine as it could get based on the not so impressive choreography, we also noticed the mass exodus of the orchestra level seating after the second act. Thankfully, the final dance “Murder Balledes” was a redeeming factor for the entire evening.

    As much as I love dance, however, I’m not sure I’ll be a fan of L.A. Dance Project if last week was any indication.

  2. Victoria,

    I could not agree with you more. I found myself more captivated by the theater’s grandure than the dances below, However, the final dance “Murder Balledes” thankfully was a good one and the arty backdrop didn’t hurt either.

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