"3 Exceptional Performances" is the umbrella title for L.A. Dance Project's program of pieces to begin the company's new artistic partnership with the Theatre at the Ace Hotel downtown. Judging from Thursday's opening, the evening might as well be called "7 Exceptional Performers," given the technical proficiency and vivid commitment exhibited by the dancers in founder Benjamin Millepied's barely two-year-old company.
It opens with a wallop: the U.S. premiere of "Reflections," which Millepied created on a commission from Van Cleef and Arpels and which premiered in Paris last year. The first of a proposed triptych of dances inspired by gems, the general effect could hardly be further from George Balanchine's celebrated "Jewels" trio, except perhaps in its flashes of virtuosity and arresting oblique narrative.
The work unfolds against artist Barbara Kruger's billboard-like visual installation - a red-and-white "STAY" upstage, with the floor bearing the words "THINK OF ME, THINKING OF YOU" - as composer David Lang's minimalist music, played with splintered-crystal accuracy by pianist Gloria Cheng, ebbs and flows, here enervated, there elegiac. Accordingly, the choreography, created by Millepied in collaboration with original cast members Julia Eichten, Charlie Hodges, Morgan Lugo, Nathan Makolandra and Amanda Wells, four of whom perform here, operates in alternately synchronized and counter-intuitive cohesion to the score.
In their opening gambit, the petite, energetic Eichten and tall, lithe Lugo combine obvious athleticism and kinetic surprise, as when she moves to support his weight and he whirls her around like a gyroscope. Hodges, a Twyla Tharp veteran and compact whirligig, does an allegro solo variation that sparkles with classical poise. The sharp-featured Makolandra pulls the angular Rachelle Rafailedes into a broken-line duet against the illuminated word "THINK." Then designer Roderick Murray's lighting briefly blinds the audience. "GO" replaces "STAY," and from Hodges and Lugo's unaccompanied tandem floor maneuvers on, "Reflections" becomes a mesmeric mood piece, with some astonishingly clean arabesques, loose-limbed lifts, and a quietly affecting final coup.
"Peripheral Stream," a preview excerpt of multi-disciplinary artist Hiroaki Umeda's latest work, goes the other way - sheer presentational abstraction. With McKenna Birmingham, Lugo, Makolandra and Rafailedes in functional black against a stunning visual projection that renders them Mobius strips moving through hallucinatory space, the 20-minute snippet benefits from the expertise of the dancers, less so from the electronic score, which evokes microphone feedback at a rave. Throughout, one cannot help but mentally paraphrase the opening tagline from "The Outer Limits" - do not adjust your corneas, there is nothing wrong with the proscenium. Yet it absolutely holds our attention, and being a segment of a longer piece, any conclusive judgment is foolhardy.
Finally, there's Justin Peck's "Murder Ballades," also a U.S. premiere, and nearer to the worlds of Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille. Performed to Bryce Dessner's restive, plangent score, the entire company, including Aaron Carr, goes through a virtual hoedown of variations on the American traditional murder ballad before Sterling Ruby's striking, post-Rothko visual installation.
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Or at least so the program notes claim. It really offers a group demonstration of elevation, rhythmic flow and spatial mobility, not always in perfect tandem but continually propulsive. The climactic diagonal crisscrossing stood out here by default - the title inevitably makes one expect more specific content. Still, if not exactly inspired, the accessibility makes for an agreeably upbeat closer to a highly promising new chapter from this wide-reaching collective.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece had the wrong text for the floor in "Reflections." It is actually "THINK OF ME, THINKING OF YOU."