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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Benjamin Millepied's LA Dance Project Hits LA

Los Angeles is not known for its dance.  Its movie stars, yes.  Its films, yes.  Its Hollywood sign, of course.  But not dance.  That is all changing thanks to the creative vision of Benjamin Millepied and his LA Dance Project.  With its premiere last night at the Disney Concert Hall as a part of the Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center, the LA Dance Project easily put dance on the map for Los Angeles.  A small group of us enjoyed Van Cleef and Arpels dinner before the performance, and Millepied’s wife, Natalie Portman, brought some A-listers to attend.  I’ve been to countless dance openings and premieres but this is certainly the first where I’ve seen Robert Pattinson.  

Ben with Natalie Portman (in Dior Couture) and Rob Pattinson

As the Founding Director for the group, Benjamin Millepied brought his love for the avant garde and modern dance to the stage.  The show opened with William Forsythe’s Quintett (1993).  The six dancers onstage poured through duets, solos and trios with utter grace and fluidity.  Dancer Frances Chiaverini especially lit the stage with her long limbs and delicate approach to the movement - her outstretched hand reaching and yearning for something in the distance was a vision I will not easily forget.  The slightly haunting yet hopeful score of Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, repeated the lyrics over and over, while the dance continued to change and evolve.  

Second on the program was Merce Cunningham’s Winterbranch (1964).  I have known and loved the work of Merce for years - even leading to a position with the organization and then later a seat on the Board of Trustees.  I found the choice of Winterbranch  an interesting one for Millepied.  The work is hard to digest as it is performed on an almost entirely black stage.  Originally performed with flashlights, the lighting has changed slightly so that you can better see the dancers, wearing all black except the white tennis shoes.  The movement was classic Cunningham, with dancers beautifully moving in and out of shapes and space.  And in typical Cunningham fashion, the music, 2 Sounds by La Monte Young, was both distracting and annoying with its pitchy tones and scratchy sounds.  But it’s Merce Cunningham.  I couldn’t help myself from giggling a little, knowing Merce’s sense of humor.  And from hearing the voices behind me complaining that it was the worst thing they had ever seen.  But the connection of Quintett to Winterbranch was apparent - and it continued to Millepied’s own choreography.

Finishing the program was Millepied’s World Premiere of Moving Parts.  Millepied is a master at creating non-stop movement as smooth as silk.  This work demonstrated the consistency of the three pieces and their use of duet, trio, and groups; and they all shared a wormy movement style with sensual and primitive moments.  Like Merce, Millepied believes in the importance of collaborating with other artists, and this piece had the stunning collaboration with artist Christopher Wool who created the visual installation.  The three large paintings were not just backdrop pieces to the dance, but in fact they were like three additional dancers on stage, moving around and creating patterns as they rolled along the stage.  Millepied also worked with designers Kate and Mulleavy of Rodarte for costumes.  The weakest component to the work, the black and red-striped costumes looked more like something out of a dance wear catalogue than the studio of such accomplished and talented designers.  Remembering Rodarte’s costumes for the LA Phil’s Don Giovanni in May, these fell short.  But the pipe organ more than made up for mediocre costumes.  Composer Nico Muhly played the exquisite pipe organ of the Concert Hall, also incorporating another dimension to the work, with clarinet and violin.  The music was rich and lively; and the dance paired beautifully with every note.  

Just a day before the performance I happened to find the ashes of Merce Cunningham in a box I was unpacking.  I thought I had lost them.  But here they were, and it felt as if Merce had made an appearance to give his blessing on Millepied’s endeavor.  Merce’s ashes now rest at the Disney Concert Hall outside around one of its beautiful trees.  My hope is that this could be an omen to the continuance of the LA Dance Project and the beauty and quality that it brings to the town of Los Angeles.    

Ben speaking at after party 
with fellow Southerner and dancer, Nathan B. Makolandra and fellow arts advocate Catharine Soros

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