There is a considerable amount of excitement in the air this evening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s magnificent Opera House, with the arrival of the L.A. Dance Project, the brainchild of star choreographer Benjamin Millepied's (ex NYCB principal and newly appointed artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet). For this New York debut, the company showcases short works by Justin Peck, William Forsythe and Millepied himself.

LA dance Project in Millepied's <i>Reflections</i> © Julia Cervantes
LA dance Project in Millepied's Reflections
© Julia Cervantes
The evening opens with Millepied's Reflections, a collaboration with the iconic, provocateur visual artist Barbara Kruger and with composer David Lang, who provides an evocative score – a minimalistic piano solo, performed live by Andrew Zolinsky. I hate to give the spoiler alert straight away, but it just has to be said: the real stunner of the piece is Kruger’s floor-to-ceiling blood-red set consisting of a backdrop that alternately displays the words “Stay” and “Go” in gigantic block letters, and a floor that spells “think of me thinking of you.” The impact of Kruger’s visual is immediate – the artist goes straight for the gut, and the feeling stays (no pun intended.) I wish I could say the same for the choreography, which ran the gamut from the fluid understated lyricism of the opening duet, to the somewhat incongruous Nutcracker-like choreography of the second movement, followed by a floor-bound contact-improv-y stint with two men, resolving into somewhat of a more contemporary feeling in the last two sections. Unfortunately, Reflections didn’t manage to sustain my attention through to the end. Dramaturgically speaking, the visceral, almost desperate appeal embodied by the visually stunning set simply did not connect with the choreography, most of which was performed with a sort of innocent restraint that was lacking in urgency; as if, inadvertently, the powerful visuals emphasized the gravitas that the work otherwise doesn’t possess. In this work, beauty is a currency in which Millepied negotiates a great deal, but the question is: to what end?

Up next, Justin Peck’s Murder Ballades does not do much to alleviate my concerns. A collaboration with the composer Bryce Dessner, whose lively score is performed by eighth blackbird ensemble, and featuring a colorful backdrop reminiscent of a geometrically sectioned tie-dyed mural designed by Sterling Ruby, the work is performed with highly energetic gusto – a ballet nouveau, if you will. Infused with occasional moments of sheer athleticism and even a touch of hip-hop, the work is performed by dancers clad in summer street clothing (well – they hail from LA, after all) and tennis shoes with the pizzazz, the big smiles, and the glossy polish worthy of a West Side Story. In case you are wondering what it all has to do with the ominous title: the program notes include the quote from the composer explicating that the work's inspirations include recent shootings stateside, the nature of violence in American identity, and the American murder ballad tradition. This sounds fair game – were it not for the fact that it was not manifested in any way neither in the music nor in the choreography, landing the Murder Ballades squarely in the head-scratcher territory. Had it not been for my guest referring to the program notes during intermission, I would have written that the work was about some youngsters’ hijinks during a Sunday picnic in the Griffiths Park. Blackout.

Anthony Bryant and Rachelle Rafailedes in Peck's <i>Murder Ballads</i> © Julia Cervantes
Anthony Bryant and Rachelle Rafailedes in Peck's Murder Ballads
© Julia Cervantes

The program’s high notes are reserved for the evening’s final offering, William Forsythe’s beguiling Quintett, which, ironically, in spite of being a twenty-one-year-old choreography (originally created in 1993), resonates much more urgently than the two works that preceded it (both 2013 creations). Dramaturgy – among other things – has always been a strong suit of Forsythe’s, so it is not surprising that the work sets a clear proposition from the outset – but not without some clever surprises in the back pocket. Performed against Gavin Bryars’ slowly building, highly repetitive, and yet heartbreaking music, featuring an elderly voice relentlessly chanting “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet”, Quintett begins, very honestly, as a formal study for five dancers. Walking on and off stage at irregular intervals, either alone, or in twos, the performers introduce short movement phrases, repeating them often, with endless permutations, attempting different pairings, starting over, finding moments of suspension, or altogether stopping in their tracks, in varying intervals – and Bryars’ seemingly endless iterations of the same musical phrase wholly supports this approach. The foundation of Forsythe’s choreography here is classical, but as the piece builds, it becomes increasingly irreverent in form, in a way that may seem mischievous but not disrespectful. The repetition of music and movement must have put me in a trance of sorts, because – nearly imperceptibly – what had begun as a formal exercise transformed into beautifully rendered physical relationships, achieving many genuine moments of joy and tenderness that the first two works of the evening suggested, perhaps even aspired to, but never quite fulfilled. As Quintett draws to a close, the dancers gradually drop off, finally leaving on stage a lone couple repeating the exact same movement phrase over and over again – starting a bit rough but with an ultimately tender ending – as if the cast finally landed on the perfect coupling they had been searching for all along.