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Anyone who’s ever lived in Southern California can tell you it’s an uphill struggle to build a dance troupe there. That Benjamin Millepied has managed to do it — and not merely survive but triumph internationally — says a great deal about his savvy and his diverse skill set. Los Angeles is a company town, and he managed to get a foothold in one of its movie companies, starring in and choreographing a hit film, Black Swan. (He later married the star of that picture, Natalie Portman.) He’s got good taste in contemporary music, and the professional instincts to go off and, uh, just run the Paris Opera Ballet for a while.
Born in France, he trained at the School of American Ballet, was mentored by Jerome Robbins, and performed for years at New York City Ballet. Now he’s back in California, touring widely and running L.A. Dance Project, a first-rate operation with live music, collaborating composers, and world-class dance artists and choreographers. He’s invited into his repertoire pieces by Merce Cunningham, Ohad Naharin, and Justin Peck.
All of this is on display for one more week at the Joyce, where the LADP offers a pair of programs that include three works by Millepied himself, two of them brand-new, one a mash-up of myth, video, and dancing. There’s also Justin Peck’s dim, mysterious Murder Ballades, set to Bryce Dessner’s adaptations of American folk ballads; the superb new MinEvent, Cunningham alum Silas Riener’s exquisite suturing of high points from Fifties Cunningham pieces; and Naharin’s overlong but compelling family drama Yag. Empty your piggy bank and buy tickets for both programs. The Joyce is the ideal spot to savor these terrific performers, and to see everything you’ll have to go twice.
Roderick Murray’s industrial-chic light stanchions behind Millepied’s 2014 Hearts and Arrows; the windowpane checks on the dancers’ shorts and skirts; the brief nuggets of crisp, balanced dancing to six segments of early Philip Glass played live: all conspired to open the LADP season on a high note. Millepied seems to think in chunks of movement, often deploying his dancers in lines and ranks and files, easy to see and appreciate, and resolving complex passages in unison codas. You don’t walk away from his work confused by it; his commanding musicality lets you see structure clearly.
Notice that Hearts’ perfect costumes, complemented with black jazz boots, were designed by Janie Taylor, a recently retired NYCB ballerina who’s now a member of this troupe (her husband’s its ballet master). Accompanying its performers is PUBLIQuartet — string players Curtis Stewart, Jannina Norpoth, Nick Revel, and Amanda Gookin, who also play for Millepied’s new Orpheus Highway.
The only work appearing on both programs is Millepied’s In Silence We Speak, a duet for Taylor and Carla Körbes, who recently retired from Pacific Northwest Ballet. Set to three brief songs by David Lang heard in recordings by So Percussion, Anonymous 4, and an ensemble that includes contemporary music stars Shara Worden, Nico Muhly, Owen Pallett, and Bryce Dessner, the dance sees the two women (Taylor, in tan trousers and top, is maybe a size 0, while Körbes, mother of a toddler and wearing white, is perhaps a 2) spar in an oblong trough illuminated around its edges. (Jim French and Millepied designed the lighting.) Wearing white sneakers, they display affection, hostility, and nurturing behavior, briefly merging into a sort of two-headed goddess, their long, loose hair flying about. Think Isadora Duncan confronting Twyla Tharp and you’ll have a taste of this; the two dancers have been friends for decades in real life, and their trust and familiarity show in performance.
The high point of the season, by my lights, is Riener’s assemblage from Merce Cunningham’s early work, for eight dancers in black unitards designed by Millepied, accompanied live by the virtuoso pianist Adam Tendler. Playing John Cage’s Music for Piano on an uncapped grand “prepared” to produce a range of startling sounds, Tendler consults the score (on an iPad) as he throws himself into the guts of the instrument, making music that the intensely focused cast heard for the first time only last Wednesday afternoon. You can catch this small masterpiece Friday night and Saturday afternoon.
Millepied, it seems, also wants to direct. Program B closes with his new Orpheus Highway, which slams nine dancers up against his video of the same nine folks shot in the scrub of Marfa, Texas, in a parking lot, and on a stretch of two-lane blacktop. Taking off from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which the hero descends to Hades to retrieve his dead wife and very nearly succeeds, the tense and threatening structure suffers from its lighting (by French and Millepied again). Privileging video over live performance almost invariably cheats the audience of a good view of the dancers. Hey, if you want to make a movie, make a movie. Here you get the sense that Millepied could actually do that (his feature debut, a film version of Carmen, is slated for production next year), but his complex choreography is barely visible onstage.
When he solves this technical problem, he’ll have a compelling piece of dance theater. The same difficulty assails Peck’s Murder Ballades: In order to show off Sterling Ruby’s dramatically scenic backdrop of natural wonders — waves, clouds, a sunset — the lighting (by Brandon Stirling Baker) cheats us of a chance to really see the sneakered dancers in their wilderness setting. Even In Silence is denied the brightness its brilliant performers deserve.
Millepied is lucky to have in his ensemble artists like David Adrian Freeland Jr., whose fraught performance as Orpheus transcends even the lowering darkness; Morgan Lugo, whose bare butt is a high point in Naharin’s ominous, 38-minute-long Yag; Rachelle Rafailedes, the ill-fated Eurydice of Orpheus Highway; and the deeply talented and experienced Stephanie Amurao, Aaron Carr, Julia Eichten, Nathan Makolandra, Robbie Moore, and Lilja Rúriksdóttir, as well as the two rangy “retired” ballerinas. Blessed with smart collaborators and a vision trained on both existing dance masterworks and the development of new material, LADP faces a bright future.
L.A. Dance Project
175 Eighth Avenue
Through June 25