L.A Dance Project
L.A. Dance Project performs Benjamin Millepied's untitled work. Photograph by Rose Eichenbaum

Energy to Burn

L.A. Dance Project perform at the Theatre at Ace Hotel

Performance
L.A. Dance Project: Mixed Repertory
Place
The Theatre at Ace Hotel, Los Angeles, California, October 24-26, 2014
Words
Victoria Looseleaf

When it was founded in 2012 by Benjamin Millepied, L.A. Dance Project was touted as some kind of second coming for the dance scene in Los Angeles. It’s too bad, then, that the 9-member troupe is rarely in town and that its home, the Theatre at Ace Hotel, a refurbished United Artists movie palace originally co-founded by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith, has extremely bad sight lines and a small stage for dance. That the audience can also bring in food and drink (popcorn, wine and whatever), is another reason the venue is a less than ideal spot for fostering the art form.

With former New York City Ballet principal Millepied beginning his directorship of Paris Opera Ballet November 1, inquiring minds want to know how this will affect his project, an artist collective initially established with composer Nico Muhly, art consultant Matthieu Humery, founding producer Charles Fabius and Nicholas Britell. Millepied has also forged ties to the city’s Colburn Dance Academy, making this choreographer married to A-list movie star, Natalie Portman, a multi-tasker—on steroids.

Still, the dancers each have a unique spark and are stunning to watch, all possessing technique to burn. It was also a treat to see Charlie Hodges, who’d been sidelined with hip surgery last May, return to the stage, albeit in only one number. He was in fine form, whether passionately air-punching or doing a yoga-like tree pose in the U.S. premiere of “Morgan’s Last Chug.”

Choreographed by Emanuel Gat in 2013, this was a 20-minute foray into fragmented group episodes that were framed by a series of blackouts and moments of stillness. Set to recordings of Bach and Purcell, textured with excerpts from Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett (audio recording performed by a raspy-voiced Jim Norton), the work was a study in disconnection: Body-slapping, crab-walking and Nijinskyesque bent hands appeared random; cool footwork was accented by a kick here, another kick there (Nathan Makolandra’s articulation was particularly pleasing). This unfettered type of vocabulary was interspersed with unisons and pairings, giving some heft to the movement.

The dancers—Rachelle Rafailedes, Morgan Lugo, Aaron Carr, Makolandra and Hodges—dressed in street clothes, added to the improvisational feel, their nonchalance interrupted by sequences of speedy virtuosity, twisty hips and the occasional bemused smile.

The program (an incomplete and cheap-looking booklet that could serve a high school production, but not one befitting a company with an annual operating budget between $1.7 and $2 million) had a description by Israeli-born Gat, who lives in France. Gat wrote that the work is “a study on layered temporality. A multifaceted look at the experience of passing time, through both the choreographic and the audible.” As elusive as this sounds, so, too, was most of the dance.

Millepied’s untitled new 17-minute work, set to Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 3 (from the 1985 film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters), proved the antithesis of Gat’s. Clad in Janie Taylor’s striking silver-and-black windowpane shorts, skirts and white tank tops, eight dancers often moved as if a single organism. The propulsive minimalist music also resulted in a motion frenzy, with pinwheel arms, gymnastic machinations and dazzling spins part of the equation.

An us-against-them mindset was frequently on view, with the group encircling Stephanie Amurao and Carr, creating a quasi-sacrificial milieu before the pair offered their own duet apart from the huddled mass. When the score became legato, Lugo and Randy Castillo, the latter’s arms swan-like, scorched with balletic brio.

Several dancers were also tossed about and even held aloft like hood ornaments, with the lanky, rubber-limbed Makolandra a forceful presence leading the pack in a finale of assured technical prowess and exultation. While Millepied’s choreography is fixed, it is said that the work will eventually be set against the conceptual art of British-born, New York-based Liam Gillick, which begs the question, why no world premieres in L.A., the troupe’s so-called home? In any case, for now, the bare stage—save for exposed pipes and Roderick Murray’s evocative lighting design—sufficed to show off these fierce and committed performers.

Completing the bill: William Forsythe’s iconic, “Quintett” (1993), a 26-minute dance made when Forsythe’s first wife was dying of cancer. A staple in the troupe’s repertory, the work makes use of Gavin Bryar’s famous score, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.”  (An earworm to many, the 1971 composition was made on a loop of an unknown homeless man singing the brief stanza with strings and brass gradually laid over the phrase as it builds in sound.)

This endless, yet hauntingly elegiac repetition coupled with the crescendo, both complements and drives the dance, a distorted vocabulary rooted in ballet (think the five positions—on acid). The flow of duets, solos and trios yield Fred Astaire-like turns, off-kilter neo-arabesques, and pedestrian moves. Each of the dancers—Anthony Bryant, Julia Eichten, Carr, Castillo and Amurao—get to strut their stuff, including, booty-shaking, shoulder-wiggling and hyper-extended poses. With the trance-like vocals and Forsythe’s bright, white lighting design seamlessly melding to showcase the movement, virtuosity of the highest order unfolds. Giving shape to themes of loss, hope, fear and joy, this is a terpsichorean playpen with extraordinary depth.

Los Angeles, often depicted as a city of dreams, whether broken or fulfilled, has a checkered dance history in need of rebooting, no matter that it was once the cradle of modern dance. With several contemporary troupes currently making an impact, including Danielle Agami’s Ate9 Dance Company, and Bodytraffic, co-directed by Lillian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett, the future seems a little brighter. Let’s hope, then, that L.A. Dance Project, with its brilliant dancers and lofty ambitions, will stick around more and truly embed itself in the city’s cultural fabric.