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.
The performance (which repeats Aug. 2 and 9) was the first by the Black Swan choreographer since he announced the formation of the Music Center-backed dance collective last November. Plus, it was free. 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.
A crush of several hundred spectators tried to position themselves on the white carpet (itself an abstract artwork by Rudolf Stingel) for the best view of Millepied and partner Amanda Wells, who until recently was a leading dancer with Stephen Petronio Company. How not to get in the way or kicked in the head? It was dicey. A videographer trailed the action. A forest of raised cell phones made it hard to find good sightlines. Millepied's romantic partner Natalie Portman was there, but no big deal. Also spotted, and a bigger deal, perhaps, was embattled museum director Jeffrey Deitch, the center of a recent firestorm over the firing of chief curator Paul Schimmel, who was also there, receiving many greetings.
Millepied didn't literally try to imitate Bradford's thickly painted, mixed-media collages. Instead, his dance remotely suggested Bradford's layering process. The piece grew room by room, a piling on of abstract gestures. Wells and Millepied came together for a grand finale, an extended duet of tango kicks and intertwined limbs in front of Bradford's canvases. Mayumi Kanagawa, a teenage violinist from the Colburn School next door, played excerpts from two Bach Partitas, which alternated with a recording of Bradford (the very tall man in the photo below) talking about his artwork.
Wells started it all off with a solo in a gallery filled with Warhols, including a mammoth canvas of green camouflage speckles. She anointed each corner of the gallery with low, sideways kicks and loose, floppy upper-body folds. Millepied took over in the second gallery, launching into a crackling series of fluidly bending and twisting motions, which gave way to crisp jumps and directional switcheroos. His steps fluidly rolled forth like an unstoppable avalanche.
It was that “Ah ha!” moment, the key to Millepied's intentions. His years as a New York City Ballet principal have made him a fleet classicist; his exposure to modern masters — particularly Merce Cunningham — has opened him to myriad choreographic possibilities. Channeling his natural abilities to the LA Dance Project's dancers' strengths will be his challenge.
Wells scooped Millepied up from the floor (lots of collapsing in this dance) and pulled him toward the last galleries, where they split up again for simultaneous solos on either side of a partial wall. Pick your dancer — it was hard to see both. They came together for a game of crack the whip, in which Wells was flinging Millepied into horizontally shooting leaps. Viewers scurried out of the way.
Millepied, his face bemused and unruffled, herded spectators like a dog directing sheep, clearing a path for a final solo of balletic spinning jumps and multiple pirouettes (no fun on carpet). For the introspective grand finale, the duo stood still, gazing at the paintings, and then falling prone. Big ovation and smiles all around. A popular warmup for the LA Dance Project's official premiere in September at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Framework will also take place at MOCA Grand Avenue, 250 S. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Thurs., Aug. 2 and Thurs., Aug. 9, 7 p.m.; free. (213) 626-6222, moca.org.