To Live and Dance in L.A.

2.18.2014

By Brian Schaefer

With L.A. Dance Project, Benjamin Millepied is determined to make his adopted home a serious player in contemporary dance

Pictured Above: Justin Peck's 'Murder Ballads' | Photo by Laurent Philippe

At the premiere of the L.A. Dance Project, in downtown Los Angeles in September 2012, the red carpet notables included Mindy Kaling, Robert Pattinson, Dita Von Teese, and Natalie Portman. Two things about this sentence don't make obvious sense: First, what are celebrities doing at a dance show? And second, and perhaps even more important, what is a high-profile dance show doing in L.A?

Although there are venues that support contemporary dance and performing arts, such as REDCAT inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall complex, the city has long chewed up and spit out efforts to establish a sustainable, internationally renowned dance company. And those that did gain some traction, at least temporarily, never much mingled with the likes of Hollywood. But if any ingénue has a chance of becoming a leading lady, it’s LADP.

First, there’s the founding cadre of artistic mavericks, including the composer Nico Muhly. Then there’s the team of top-notch dancers. There’s also the swanky new downtown performance venue at the Theatre at Ace Hotel (formerly the historic United Artists Theater), where the company will perform February 20-22. Finally, there’s Benjamin Millepied, the suave French-born former principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, one of LADP’s co-founders and its savvy director.

“We’ve started to grow a following,” Millepied explains, speaking by phone from Jerusalem, where he’s hanging with his 2-year-old son, Aleph, while his wife, Portman, directs her first film there. (The two met during the filming of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which Millepied choreographed.)

Part of LADP’s appeal is its smart and surprising programming: Millepied mixes modern classics like Merce Cunningham’s 1964 Winterbranch with contemporary masters like William Forsythe and promising new voices like Justin Peck, whose work Murder Ballads, which premiered in France last fall, will have it’s U.S. premiere with LADP this week. And hooking up with the Ace brand ensures that this repertory will become embedded in the cultural calendar of L.A.’s young and hip.

The partnership with the Ace is one of several shrewd alliances Millepied has engineered for the troupe. He has also forged ties with the jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels, fashion brand Rodarte, L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and Art Basel. Corporate sponsors, star-studded premieres and art-world cred are not how most contemporary dance companies behave. But they might be the key to LADP’s—and dance’s—survival.

“Our company can serve as a new model for dance in the future,” says Millepied (pronounced MILL-pee-ay). That future was recently called into question when Millepied accepted the post of artistic director at the Paris Opera Ballet, one of the most prestigious classical companies in the world. (His tenure in Paris begins this fall.) But he insists he won’t abandon his newborn troupe.

“Of course I won’t be in L.A. as much,” he says. “But I’m gathering more people on the staff side to run the company and keep it in top shape.” He’ll also be overseeing the development of new ballets and contributing a few of his own, including Reflections, a ballet with big, bold text by renowned visual artist Barbara Kruger that will also make its American debut this week.

Benjamin Millepied's 'Reflections' | Photo by Laurent Philippe

At the moment, LADP has more of a presence oversees than it does stateside. It hasn’t performed much outside of its hometown and even there, the company’s seasons are short and sporadic. Meanwhile, this spring, LADP will spend several months hopping between Japan, Australia, Russia, and 10 different cities in France.

This has to do both with Millepied’s French connections, as well as the fact that worldwide touring simply pays better than touring in America. It’s how Millepied affords to keep his dancers on contract, and you can’t blame him for that. But the primary goal is still to contribute to the cultural renaissance that has been sweeping Los Angeles over the past few years and Millepied anticipates longer and more frequent performances there as the company grows roots.

“Starting something in L.A. is not easy,” he says. It's an understatement since the odds of success of a major dance company in this town might be on par with a nobody from Nebraska becoming a movie star. But Millepied has the skills and vision to make it happen—not to mention the support of a certain movie star at home. He also seems genuinely invested in making it work.

“I plan to stay committed,” he says. “We’re part of building the dance community.”

L.A. Dance Project presents U.S. premieres in Downtown L.A. Feb. 20, 21 & 22.

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