February 2014

When Benjamin Millepied was named the new artistic director of Paris Opera Ballet, folks jumped to the conclusion that would be the end of L.A. Dance Project, the chamber company he founded with substantial support from the Music Center. Not so. His commitment seems genuine to keeping L.A. Dance Project alive; maybe someone else will eventually take over as chief choreographer. Recently retired NYC Ballet principal dancer James Fayette was just brought in as managing director, so he’ll be minding the store when Millepied starts his new job in Paris this September.

In the meantime, the company deepens its ties to the community, including a new collaboration with the Colburn School. And L.A. Dance Project performed here again duing the weekend, at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel, a historic downtown movie palace at Broadway and 10th that will apparently be its local performing home. Millepied’s “Reflections” (2013) opened the program (I went Saturday afternoon), and while I have been lukewarm about his work thus far, I was more enthusiastic about this piece. His loose-limbed, casual, give-in-to-gravity style was used to depict sweet love, in duos and trios. The five dancers stacked themselves like building blocks and collapsed like dominoes. He gave the incomparable Charlie Hodges a fantastic solo of jumps landing on half-point, wide-open leaps and spins with high a passe. “Reflections,” though too long, melted the heart, bringing to mind one’s own intimate encounters. Pianist Gloria Cheng played David Lang’s minimalist score with strength and skill. Two backdrops by visual artist Barbara Kruger — “Stay” and “Go” — and a message on the floor — “Thinking of me, thinking of you”– suggested contrasting emotions, but dance was more “stay” than “go.”

The second work was a preview excerpt from Hiroaki Umeda’s “Peripheral Stream,” best summarized as a visual art piece with movement. Umeda was choreographer, composer and visual designer. A grating electronic score of beeps and static accompanied swirling dancing, with the dancers rolling body parts in isolation. Umeda’s  digital video backdrops of lines or checks made for strong imagery, but the dancers neither disappeared into the video nor stood out from it, making it all rather pointless and irritating.

Far more accessible, Justin Peck’s “Murder Ballades” (2013)  was a lovely abstraction and more classical than any of L.A. Dance Project’s repertory seen here thus far. Though story-less, it’s sections rang of urgency and longing. The crackling drive and force of his balletic style woke up the audience and provided needed contrast within the program. The project’s dancers responded with welcome fierceness. The title referred to the folk music–songs recalling the stories of murders–that composer Bryce Dessner used as inspiration for her richly textured score. Sterling Ruby created a diverting patchwork backdrop.

One of L.A. Dance Project’s missions is to bring together visual, musical and dance artists, to create multi-layered works. While an admirable goal, it’s hard to make such collaborations feel organic. But little gems are produced, as well, such as Dessner’s score (recorded by a group called eighth blackbird), and “Reflections” pairing with Lang.

Gillian Murphy and Qi Huan by Evan Li

Gillian Murphy and Qi Huan, photo by Evan Li

I admit it’s rather tired for me to call the Royal New Zealand Ballet “small but mighty.” But as I watched them Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (presented by Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center), that overused expression kept popping into my head as most appropriate for this company of 34. A scant 14 Wilis, plus the aggressively fierce Abigail Boyle as Myrtha, managed to look twice as numerous onstage in this 2012 traditional-revisionist “Giselle.” How else to explain that?

The New Zealanders, who by my records were last in Southern California in November 1990 at Irvine Barclay Theatre, are now led by former ABT principal dancer Ethan Stiefel. This “Giselle,” co-created by Stiefel and Johan Kobborg, has become a vehicle for Stiefel’s fiancee, ABT’s Gillian Murphy, who had been typecast as Myrtha, never given a chance to try her hand at the mad scene. Perhaps because she is most familiar with the Romantic style of the second act, her Giselle-as-Wili was most affecting–sorrowful, aching, but utterly explosive in the role’s leaps, beats and lickety-split turns. Playing meek, however, was more problematic for Murphy. She has yet to find her distinctive personality as the first act peasant girl; doe-eyed sweetness is not quite enough. Qi Huan, on the other hand, was an Albrecht to cherish. Narcissistic  and heartless as he tricks and woos Giselle, he was believably broken-hearted at her death. And, like Murphy, his physical prowess only increased as the ballet progressed, his soaring beats being especially impressive. And, he was an unerring partner, steadfast as he grabbed her by the hips and power-lifted her over his head.

But I was just as struck by the style and commitment of the rest of the company, despite the few bobbles and missteps. They performed with a rare crispness and exuberance; the made the story vital and consequential. The dancing was light and musical, with the accent up, rather than down. (Perhaps this influence came from Kobborg, a veteran of the Royal Danish Ballet, although the Royal New Zealand Ballet was founded back in 1953 by another Danish principal.) Jacob Chown was a sympathetic and charming Hilarion; Bronte Kelly and Rory Fairweather-Neylan were the accomplished wedding couple. Mayu Tanigaito and Clytie Campbell were formidable as the Wili soloists,

As far as Stiefel and Kobborg’s tweaks and revisions, some provided dramatic urgency, while the really big one–spoiler alert–the ending, was rather dreadful, in my opinion. The ballet is framed as a flashback for Albrecht, who has never gotten over Giselle’s death; he rushes to her grave at the ballet’s last seconds, and the Wilis march on militaristically to get him. It felt completely wrong-headed. More interesting was how Hilarion was made a more active rival for Giselle, with the peasant pas de deux turned into a dance competition for Albrecht and Hilarion. When Bathilde (Campbell) looks into Giselle’s face, she sees not a pretty girl of a lower-caste, but feels the chill of a real threat, and turns away.  One nice touch from a company that offered many.