What the papers say
A few weeks ago inside a sunny rehearsal hall here, six sweaty dancers and one star choreographer — Benjamin Millepied — set out to charm a group of donors. As the sextet performed some intricately interwoven partnering, he leaned against a wall and chewed on his bottom lip. “Beautiful! It’s insane! It’s just great!” he interjected. The first program from L.A. Dance Project, which made its debut in September in Los Angeles and opens at Montclair State University in New Jersey on Thursday, is an enormously ambitious one consisting of that new dance Mr. Millepied was rehearsing; Merce Cunningham’s sonically arduous masterwork “Winterbranch,” not fully seen since the 1970s; and William Forsythe’s “Quintett,” a haunting piece from 1993 that Mr. Forsythe has described as “a love letter” to his young wife, who was dying of cancer.
It was a scene, all right, at LA Dance Project’s “sneak preview” show, a site-specific dance by Benjamin Millepied in MOCA’s galleries Thursday night. Millepied’s 25-minute duet, Framework, was inspired by the work of LA artist Mark Bradford, who has two paintings in the MOCA show, “The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol.” One of Millepied’s goals is to lift his ballets off the stage and put them at eye-level. He got his wish.
“Benjamin Millepied has choreographed for the world’s major ballet troupes for much of the past decade. Having retired last year from NYCB, he is approaching choreography with reinvigorated focus and envisions LA Dance Project as something quite different from the typical dance troupe. The word “ballet” is purposely not a part of it’s name, and Millepied has assembled a core of collaborators to ensure that LADP presents work that incorporates and interacts with various art forms.”
With his choreography for “The Bartered Bride,” Millepied shows once again why he is so consistently called upon to make dances; he is nimble in his choreographic choices, able to work effectively and stylishly with both trained and untrained dancers, and always finds ways to move people about the stage in a satisfying way, making pleasing, interesting patterns that serve the spirit of the music.
[Millepied]’s become expert at maneuvering groups of dancers, devising clever patterns onstage, and pulling new designs out of old ones with an element of surprise. Watching Plainspoken, you can admire his skill. Also, like Jerome Robbins, whom he considers a mentor, he likes dancers to convey a sense of community onstage. Those in Plainspoken often give one another looks, watch what’s going on, imply comradeship.
If I say least of Mr. Millepied’s “3 Movements” — set to Steve Reich’s “Three Movements for Orchestra,” it features black, gray and white décor (by the choreographer) and costumes (by Isabella Boylston) — that’s because the Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Ballet’s performance was seen in New York in January at the Joyce Theater. It remains among the finest pieces of Mr. Millepied’s work, and confirms that his masterly handling of large groups in changing geometries is something rare.
A second viewing, though it certainly discloses more links between music and dance, doesn’t disclose any further depths in his view of human energies. But this ballet is entirely chic and never less than charming.
But there is another piercing moment, when the live one has been sketching some sharp but simple moves and then turns to contemplate his younger self. It’s like the scene in Tom Stoppard’s play “The Invention of Love” when A. E. Housman, at the end of his life, finds himself in conversation with the undergraduate he once was, to whom he says “I’m not as young as I was. Whereas you, of course, are.”
Both are thoroughly accomplished; both show their choreographers (Benjamin Millepied and Alexei Ratmansky) to be among the most skilled ballet makers working today.
“Amoveo,” an insouciant roundelay for 11 dancers set to extracts from Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach,” throws off those constraints (together with pointe shoes). The result is a fluid, expansive dance that makes little overt use of a ballet vocabulary in its quick elisions between steps and jazzy motifs.
The ballet tells a kind of abstract love story, with the étoiles Nicolas Le Riche and Clairemarie Osta as a central pair amid a jaunty crowd that comes and goes around them with casual brio. At the heart of the work is a slow, intense pas de deux to Mr. Glass’s “Bed (Aria)” that makes impressive use of Ms. Osta’s quicksilver virtuosity and Mr. Le Riche’s compelling lyricism and strength.
So far he’s managed to avoid the heavy, golden-boy hype of contemporaries like Christopher Wheeldon, but that may change with Quasi Una Fantasia, Millepied’s first major commission for his home company (premiering Wednesday) and a clear artistic takeoff point. His signatures—intricately woven, slightly off-balance partnering; complex, evolving group patterns; and the celebration of female dancers as both powerful and mysterious—crystallize here into a movingly unified work, set to a haunting string score by Henryk Górecki.
Benjamin Millepied’s world premiere “3 Movements,” set to Steve Reich’s minimalist score (played with stirring urgency by the PNB orchestra), is designed in shades of gray and danced with a whipped-up fierceness; its 16 dancers seemingly lit by cool fire. You can see in it hints of Millepied’s New York City Ballet precursors — the low-to-the ground, swingy menace of Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story”; the whirling, almost mad circle of the ensemble, reminiscent of the last moments of George Balanchine’s “La Valse.”
But Millepied here has created something entirely his own, showing a remarkable gift for shaping groups of dancers: a crowd of 16 suddenly becomes two separate, moving tides. (Though “3 Movements” is an abstract work, little moments of narrative pervade it; at one point, a man climbs to another man’s shoulders to watch a group of whirling women). Carla Körbes and Batkhurel Bold dance a pas de deux both moody and tempestuous, her head falling back as if swept away by a wave. At the end, the cast runs upstage and through a series of gray-and-black streamers that had served as a prisonlike backdrop; breaking both a wall and a powerful spell.
There are the jazzy physical inflections of “Interplay,” the friendly macho rivalries of “Dances at a Gathering,” the improvisational, casual air of “Fancy Free.” But “Triade,” starkly presented on a bare, black-curtained stage, is both more minimalist and more maximalist than any of these works — as if Mr. Millepied had put a microscope on four anonymous individuals in Robbins’s crowd and revealed their bursting inner lives and barely contained emotions.
Balletic prowess as seduction? Perhaps, because this sequence evolves into a long pas de deux for this pair that is the suddenly resonant heart of “Triade” and shows the tall and powerful Ms. Gillot as the superb artist she can be. Circling each other’s bodies, their limbs flashing into space, or their torsos suddenly buckling and convulsing against each other (here the influence of William Forsythe is visible), Ms. Gillot and Mr. Bezard gradually accrue a remarkable emotional intensity.
Mr. Millepied doesn’t achieve these heights consistently; sometimes “Triade” feels a little vague, its structure a bit arbitrary. But the world that he creates onstage (helped by Patrice Besombes’s subtle lighting) has the feel of our time, and in it ballet seems to be a language that can be spoken today. That’s no small achievement.
It is Mr. Millepied who, though less experienced and eminent as a choreographer, has made the more substantial dance composition. “From Here on Out” is also, admittedly, more conventional; it seems to have learned lessons from numerous ballets, from Jerome Robbins’s “Glass Pieces” on (maybe even moments from “The Sleeping Beauty”), including the undeniably influential William Forsythe. (I am inclined to blame Mr. Forsythe for the current international trend of lighting dancers from angles that will make them partly or largely shadowed to the audience, but Mr. Millepied adopts this practice in only one section.) Several of these lessons are good. Mr. Muhly’s score has, as the overture alone shows, a striking range of sonority and structure, and Mr. Millepied’s ballet has craft, discipline and a welcome energy.
That left a 10-minute ballet by Benjamin Millepied called “Double Aria,” first done in Sag Harbor, N.Y., in 2003 and hence the oldest item on the program, as the understated highlight of the night… Mr. Millepied’s choreography was compelling, the way Christopher Wheeldon’s duets usually are. It was set on the same two dancers who had done it in 2003. They are long and willowy, with wonderful arms, and Mr. Millepied made full use of their sinuous intertwinings.