By Jane Rosenberg
L.A. Dance Project, the company founded by Benjamin Millepied, former New York City Ballet principal and current director of the Paris Opera Ballet, takes its name from Los Angeles but spends the bulk of its time touring internationally. For its annual return to LA, the company landed at the Wallis in Beverly Hills.
This relatively new theatre has proved itself, particularly with Twyla Tharp’s spring visit last year, a worthy and lively venue for dance. What was perplexing last night was the scattered and unprofessional pacing of the presentation. A sixty-minute evening of dance turned into nearly two hours, with forty plus minutes devoted to intermissions. Coupled with lackluster choreography, this had the effect of turning three short dances into a sluggish night of performances.
A collaboration between Justin Peck and the composer, Bryce Dessner, Murder Ballades opened the program. Rooted in European and American folk traditions of recounting bloody murders in song, the score (in recording) created a buoyant sound world of complex rhythms and plaintiff strings. Combined with Peck’s choreography, however, the music, reflecting the stoicism of the hardscrabble existence of the American heartland, was diminished by Peck’s gentle handling of this ominous material.
In the opening, repetitive choreography with arms and legs inscribing circles offered little in the way of foreshadowing violence to come. And though the music grew more urgent as the piece progressed, the dancing did not. Only in one later section when the dancers used their bodies like pendulums, sometimes capsizing and then reasserting themselves in an upright posture of defiance, was there a hint of conflict.
Rectangular slashes of reds, blacks, grays, and browns formed a distracting, flag-like backdrop. Inexplicably, sneakers were put on and removed, perhaps to emphasize the “American-ness” of the theme. Lighting was muddy and failed to highlight when needed.
Lighting became a significant component in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s, Harbor Me. On a dark stage, shafts of light from on high cut through the blackness illuminating male dancers writhing on the floor. Are we in a prison? A mosque? Program notes suggest we are in a place of shelter and yet the dancing conveyed a sense of discomfort and disquiet. Sinking and sliding, three dancers representing fire, water, and air, moved together like a huge caterpillar. At its best, the choreography referenced ancient mythology, as the dancers maneuvered like one organism, now attaching their heads together, now their torsos. At its worst, it became a parlor game whose participants struggled to touch their fingers together in order to create geometric shapes in the air. Here is where the lighting failed to add clarity. Granted we are in a shadowy realm, but with an inordinate amount of time spent skirting the floor and the continual entangling of bodies, it became difficult to delineate movement.
It was a welcome relief to see the stage lit up for Benjamin Millepied’s Hearts & Arrows. Where costumes seemed ragged and slapdash in the preceding dances, they glowed with stylish effervescence in Hearts & Arrows, with skirts for the women and shorts for the men patterned in glorious black and white. With his usual elegance, Millepied moved his dancers in pleasing patterns as they sauntered through a catalogue of jumps, spins, and lifts.
Most engaging was the final section of Glass’s score when the dancers linked arms and bodies in a circle and moved in harmony. But Glass’s music, so ubiquitous in dance, had no inherent relationship to the choreography. Over and over again, choreographers use his music, for, one assumes, the ease and compatibility of creating dance to its repetitive structures. But it is with Lucinda Childs that Glass’s compositions achieve true impact in dance. With her uncanny ability to uncover complex patterns within minimalist movements, she truly embraces Glass’s sensibility.
Nowhere in Millepied’s amiable dance vocabulary was there an exploration of the music or the intellectual rigor to justify yet another dance created to Glass’s distinctive sound world.
Peck, Murder Ballades, Cherkaoui, Harbor Me, Millepied, Hearts & Arrows: L.A. Dance Project, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills through Jan. 30
Stephanie Amurao, Aaron Carr, Julia Eichten, Morgan Lugo, Nathan Makolandra, Rachelle Rafailedes, Robbie Moore, Anthony Bryant, Lilja Ruriksdottir
Choreography: Justin Peck
Music: Bryce Dessner
Lighting: Brandon Stirling Baker
Costumes: Justin Peck
Visual Installation: Sterling Ruby
Choreography: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Music: Park Woojae, Geomungo “Extension”
Lighting and Visuals: Fabiana Piccioli
Hearts & Arrows
Choreography: Benjamin Millepied
Music: Philip Glass, String Quartet No. 3
Lighting: Roderick Murray
Costumes: Janie Taylor
Visual Concept: Liam Gillick
To read more opera, dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.
Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children. Jane is also the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.