After his highly publicized work on the film Black Swan, Benjamin Millepied leveraged his newfound star power to start LA Dance Project in 2012. Then he ran off to take over the Paris Opera Ballet. Following his abrupt departure from POB, Millepied has now returned to Los Angeles and all eyes are watching to see what he does next. The company of ten is filled with very well trained dancers, mostly from Juilliard’s highly regarded dance program, and they are all quite good. The repertoire they are dancing is comprised of new works and revivals of seminal dances and their performances are attracting substantial attention. There are several important partnerships and residencies forthcoming that will help the company on its way but there is much work to do.

Morgan Ludo, Charlie Hodges and Aaron Carr in <i>Harbor me</i> © Laurence Philipe
Morgan Ludo, Charlie Hodges and Aaron Carr in Harbor me
© Laurence Philipe

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Harbor Me opened the show with a trio featuring Robbie Moore, Morgan Lugo and Aaron Carr. With a new-agey, Indian sounding score, the men danced together and separately with deep intimacy. Cherkaoui’s program notes refer to the question of whether or not one person can harbor, or protect, another person without erasing him or fundamentally changing him. This was acted out through a thoroughly modern dance idiom. At times, all three had to move as one with their heads fused together. As one dancer moved into another, they submerged their individual identities and each was altered by the other. The beauty of this piece lay in the fact that it made the best use of the technical abilities of these dancers and it never stopped moving. At its best, it was powerfully sculptural and emotionally poignant. For me it was the most successful piece on the program.

In my opinion, three Martha Graham duets in an evening is usually two too many and that was true here. In the first two duets with Julia Eichten and Morgan Lugo followed by Nathan Makolandra and Rachelle Rafailedes, Graham’s work was presented as if by conscientious students. They came across as static rather than dynamic and that is fatal to Graham’s oeuvre. In the third duet, Stephanie Amurao and Anthony Bryant really brought the choreography to life by making me feel that they were fully invested in it. It felt as though the duet was new again and not a museum piece. It was deeply felt and by far the best of the three.

Justin Peck’s Helix, set to music of Esa-Pekka Salonen showcased the company’s dancing ability. It was, however, missing some trademark strengths of Peck’s choreography. The partnering was cursory and didn’t have that degree of two-way communication that makes his duets so enjoyable. Peck’s program notes indicate that the piece is an accelerando that increases in speed until it reaches a climax. It did and the three couples moved very well but this was not his best work.

Stephanie Amurao, <i>On the Other Side</i> © Laurence Philipe
Stephanie Amurao, On the Other Side
© Laurence Philipe
My overall impression of Millepied’s On the Other Side is that he is still working out his transition to becoming a modern dance choreographer. It was not a success. First, the difficulty of choreographing to the music of Phillip Glass lies in its mesmeric appeal. It is pulsing, throbbing, relentless. It derives its power from small changes in chords and rhythms that allow it to develop thematically over long periods of time. It’s cerebral and hypnotic which is great for a listener but it’s not necessarily good for ballet. Most choreographers, Millepied included, fall into the pattern of… well, following the pattern of the music. In short, it becomes repetitive. Millepied compounded the problem by making it far too long. At least three times I expected it to be over and it went on. The second problem was with Millepied’s reliance on classical ballet dance vocabulary. The men’s steps were more or less solidly in a contemporary, modern dance style and were successful, while the women’s steps kept reverting to classical ballet. That does a disservice to those women in the company who are not trained ballet dancers. Some of them did the balletic steps pretty well but that is not the point of dancing. These are steps meant to be performed by trained ballet dancers and doing them “pretty well” isn’t good enough. Either choreograph classical ballet on ballet dancers or don’t but give these dancers steps that show them to their best advantage as Cherkaoui did.

L.A. Dance Project has some great talent and is fortunate enough to be able to attract a lot of serious attention thanks to the presence of Benjamin Millepied. Taking the next step will require consistent results and choreography that plays to their strengths rather than relying on big names that are popular right now. Above all, these are interesting dancers to watch and worth seeing, even when the choreography isn’t the best.