Famous as a choreographer and as the star of the award-winning film Black Swan, as well as being the husband of Natalie Portman, there is a weight of expectation on the work of Benjamin Millepied. He will take up the position of Director of Dance at Paris Opera Ballet in 2014, but his latest project, performing at Sadler’s Wells this week, attempts to break free from classical ballet tradition. “The issue with ballet is that it is an art form that has closed in on itself... a circle of the uncurious”, are his words in the programme.

Reflections by Benjamin Millepied © Laurent Philippe
Reflections by Benjamin Millepied
© Laurent Philippe

LA Dance Project is an arts collective of seven performers, set up by Millepied in 2012 to bring high-quality dance to a location primarily renowned for film. In the company’s first international tour, three works are being presented, including two new choreographies – but it is William Forsythe’s older and more established piece in which the company shines.

Justin Peck’s Murder Ballads commences the evening. The curtain opens on a stage empty except for six pairs of shoes, before dancers run on, claim their footwear and burst into life. The work’s title comes from the tradition of recounting the details of murders through song, but there is nothing murderous or even confrontational about the choreography. Instead, the series of rather disjointed episodes feel overly stilted and lacking the spontaneity that it seems Peck was trying to convey.

Next is Reflections, a collaboration between choreographer Millepied, composer David Lang and artist Barbara Kruger. The results make me wonder if the three paid any attention to each other’s work, with a predominantly mournful solo piano score accompanying choreography which is varied but not musically responsive, and a bright red backdrop with, in enormous lettering, the words “STAY”, and later “GO”.

At times, Reflections feels almost narrative; the interesting images of dancers attempting to run across the stage only to be repeatedly hauled back by their fellow performers, and a tender duet filled with comforting embraces, stand out in particular. But at other moments, the choreography is completely at odds with its score and set design.

Exploring the themes of loss, hope, fear and joy, Forsythe’s Quintett is undoubtedly the programme’s highlight. Against a plain black stage and with the sounds of Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet – a homeless man singing the same few words on a loop – it was in this work that the LA Dance Project performers appeared truly at home.

The choreography varies from huge lifts and leaps to minute twitches of the neck and fingers, with every tiny movement spiralling into a larger sequence of bodies flowing across the stage. With the vibrancy of the dancers contrasting the monotony and simplicity of the music, I felt both calm and energised – grounded by the repetitive male voice but inspired and invigorated by the dynamism of the performers.

From discussions overheard in the interval and afterwards, reactions to the LA Dance Project’s performance were mixed. One person had quite the opposite response to my own, loving the first two pieces but wanting “to shoot the singer” (!) in Quintett. Nevertheless, it seemed that everyone, including myself, wanted to applaud Millepied for putting together a new company and attempting to create something different.