At last, after 10 months of anticipation, here we were in Disney Hall Saturday night, for the premiere of Benjamin Millepied's L.A. Dance Project, a “curatorial collective” with inaugural funding and the imprimatur of the Music Center.
A program of trenchant, or let's say challenging, contemporary ballets awaited — plus Millepied's world premiere. Each provoked an array of reactions: first, collective exhalation as the first piece began, William Forsythe's 1993 Quintett. Next, walkouts, some booing, polite clapping and nervous eye-rolling after Merce Cunningham's edgy 1964 Winterbranch, with its torturous, ear-splitting score by Fluxus pioneer La Monte Young. And, finally, a standing ovation after the debut of Millepied's own piece, Moving Parts, which was accompanied by a live trio of musicians, costumes by Rodarte and a scenic design from a blue chip New York City artist.
But unmet expectations roiled. A lady who sat seething near me hissed: Don't give this a good review.
Let's consider L.A. Dance Project and Millepied's efforts as artistic director and choreographer in separate chunks.
First, the dancers. Millepied has selected well. He has gathered six exceptional men and women, each with a charismatic and distinct personality. All exhibited the explosive energy that Millepied favors. (He did not perform.) There was long, lean Frances Chiaverini; fluid Amanda Wells; jackrabbit Julia Eichten; blazingly intense Charlie Hodges; romantic Morgan Lugo and silkily smooth Nathan Makolandra. An exciting group that I would enjoy watching repeatedly.
Second, Millepied the choreographer. Classical ballet serves as his foundation, upon which he builds fitfully structured, “messy” movements. Millepied shifts bodies for visual effect, as though they are pieces in a diorama. Yet, it's hard to understand his intentions. Phrases streamed forth in the work's three separate sections in similarly feverish but rhythm-less monotones. The danced portion of this collaboration became subordinate to music, lighting and set design.
Ultimately, Moving Parts struck me as an abstract fantasy. The dancers were the living embodiment of the black lines on three, moveable canvases created by Christopher Wool, Millepied's scenic collaborator. The six dancers, dressed in black pants and tunics with a colored line as accent (by Kate and Laura Mulleavy), were escapees from the mammoth paintings, acting out the symbolic squiggles and straight edges in uninspiring gestures and steps.
The dancers pushed the canvases about the stage, reconfiguring the space. As an ever-changing kaleidoscope and as optical illusion, Moving Parts was diverting. Nico Muhly's organ solos conferred an essence of the monumental and it was a relief to have live music, lovingly executed (Phil O'Connor on clarinet and Lisa Liu on violin).
And lastly, Millepied as program director. Chalk up a partial success only. It was a mistake to include two pieces of aural agony on the same show. (Quintett is danced to an annoying, looping song from avant-garde composer Gavin Bryars; Young's torturous noise was created by scraping ashtrays against a mirror and wood against a Chinese gong.)
That said, it was a revelation to see this group do Quintett; these dancers even surpassed the Ballett Frankfurt ensemble I saw in 2001, performing it with a lush, romantic abandon. The piece normally includes a hole upstage into which the dancers disappear, but unfortunately Disney Hall has no trap door; the piece's mix of foreboding and hope was harder to discern as a result. Still, the dancers' ample movements and spirited quality delivered some compensation.
Winterbranch is a landmark experimental piece (with a bizarre “monster” sculpture inspired by Robert Rauschenberg's original skittering across the stage), but it is best considered as a historic point in Cunningham's revolutionary oeuvre. Here's an idea: Trade that one for a piece by a significant local choreographer, say the late Bella Lewitzky, a pioneer whose work would demonstrate to the world that this “curatorial collective” lives up to its name, has a sense of place and a commitment to it. Just saying.