From the City of Light to the City of Angelsby Susan Yung
L.A. DANCE PROJECT | THE JOYCE THEATER | JULY 26 – 30, 2016
Good news: the L.A. Dance Project (LADP) is back at full strength, with artistic director Benjamin Millepied able to refocus on the company now that he has left his post at the Paris Opera Ballet. The California-based troupe’s program at the Joyce demonstrated Millepied’s ambition to look forward—and glance back—with a repertory of his own work and pieces by Martha Graham, Justin Peck, and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
When the seismic news hit in 2013 that Millepied had accepted the artistic directorship in Paris, LADP seemed to be hitting its stride in only its second year. It had a season in BAM’s Next Wave Festival, presenting repertory by William Forsythe, Justin Peck, and Millepied, and at other prominent venues such as Sadler’s Wells and the Edinburgh Festival. While it was exciting for Paris, it felt like a loss of a promising West Coast ballet-based company—or at least an impending extended hiatus. But Millepied returned to L.A. this year in time to maintain a firm hand and prepare a season that included the New York program.
The choreography of Belgian Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui may, on the outset, look easier than classical ballet, with its boneless slides to the floor, and no obvious differentiation in difficulty between being head up or down. But in some ways, a personal vocabulary and lack of codification can be difficult for dancers not immersed in his language. Morgan Lugo, Aaron Carr, and Robbie Moore handled the challenge well in Harbor Me, a male trio, first circling one another, then melding their bodies and stacking up their sideways-turned heads, totem-pole style. Park Woojae Geomungo’s music featured spare cello lines that evoked whale sounds, as well as strident plucked passages. Although Cherkaoui veered close to cliché in his choreography when the three men collectively used mime to delineate cubes—then rectangles, which they pivoted to stand on end—the fluidity and commitment of the dancers was impressive.
Three Martha Graham duets followed, an inaugural stage performance of works done in the Graham documentary A Dancer’s World; the accompanying (recorded) music derived from the film as well. Each brief, crisp, and taut, the duets shared glimpses of relationships at varying phases of playfulness and maturity. There were many moments that displayed Graham’s ingenuity—a woman twisting her torso and gazing skyward; a man pushing the limit of a daring tilt; another dancer’s hands drifting as leaves might float to the ground. The dancers’ relaxed, athletic deftness contrasts with the Graham Company’s innate tension and rigidity, resulting in a more contemporary feel for the classical modern idiom.
Justin Peck’s movement style should logically be natural for LADP’s dancers. Peck danced with Millepied at New York City Ballet (NYCB), both share Balanchine training and pedagogy, and Peck has worked with the company previously. So the dancers unsurprisingly look at ease in his ballet-based Helix, performing in snappy blue socks that contrast with slate-colored leotards designed by Janie Taylor. Twisting motifs that connect to the title are abundant, including scooping attitude turns that spiral around the body, spins in the air, and ebb and flow in pulses mirroring Esa-Pekka Salonen’s string accompaniment. The performers impressively form tableau after tableau, each worthy of capping a finale, yet instead, melts into the next one. While not a radical contribution to Peck’s rapidly growing résumé, the piece highlights his formal expressiveness and showcases talented dancers.
On the Other Side, a new work by Millepied with music by Philip Glass, is anchored by a painting (visual concept by Mark Bradford), and the costumes (by Alessandro Sartori) are in the primary colors of the painting’s palette. Most strikingly, the five women are given bold, independent sections apart from the four men. In particular, Laura Bachman has a quick, bright solo that underscores how infrequently women, free of point shoes, are given virtuoso steps. She is joined by three women who lift and spin her on her back. An extended male duet is uncommonly tender; the men roll over one another’s legs, and one lifts the other who holds a cruciform shape. The many large and small recombinant groupings show Millepied’s fluent, shapely choreography—although the dance’s length, in an already substantial program, may have diluted the overall impact.
The program heralds L.A. Dance Project’s promising continuation under the firm hand of Millepied. Another bit of bright news: the company’s associate director, Carla Körbes (also a NYCB alum, and late of Pacific Northwest Ballet) and Janie Taylor (of NYCB) will begin dancing with LADP this fall. These two are among the remarkable dancers who are still relatively young with much to offer, but who may have felt defeated by injuries or the incessant pressures of dancing with major companies. LADP is becoming a magnet for such dancers and offers a rewarding next phase for their careers and for their audiences.
SUSAN YUNG is a New York-based culture writer.