Benjamin Millepied on LA Dance Project
LA Dance Project’s founder Benjamin Millepied tells Claire Black that, small troupe or large, what counts is innovation
In a darkened space, empty apart from the heady expectations of a sold-out audience, a figure squirms across the floor. A beam of light, dim and random, picks out the figure and then others, men and women, who stand at the periphery, dressed in black, black marks daubed on their faces. The soundscape offers no respite: La Monte Young’s Two Sounds comprises an ashtray scraping against a mirror and pieces of wood being rubbed against a gong. There is silence then the noise becomes relentless, filling the space, thrilling some and perplexing others.
The abstract expressionism of Merce Cunningham’s Winterbranch, first performed in 1964, is exactly the kind of work that LA Dance Project came into existence to perform. The self-declared mission of the dance collective, founded in 2012 by choreographer and dancer Benjamin Millepied, is to “create new work and revive seminal collaborations from influential dance makers”. In a hectic first year, they’ve danced pieces by William Forsythe, as well as Cunningham, and several works created by Millepied, including Moving Parts, which they will dance in Edinburgh this weekend. The six dancers have toured all over the world as well as undertaking new work created for them by Israeli choreographer Emanuel Gat and American wunderkind Justin Peck.
“They’ve been working extensively this year,” says Millepied from his home in Los Angeles. No stranger to a packed schedule, Millepied will be in New York where he is creating a work for City Ballet when LA Dance Project performs in Edinburgh. “We’re just a year old but one of my concerns was to make sure that they were exposed to and fed enough new work. At the beginning we had my work, but then we began to bring in some new choreographers which was the big goal. They’ve just finished the piece with Justin Peck, so it has been a hugely demanding year.”
Born near Bordeaux and trained at the Lyon Conservatory, Millepied, 35, joined the School of American Ballet as a teenager and became a protegé of the great Jerome Robbins. He spent his career with New York City Ballet where he was promoted to principal dancer in 2002. When he retired in 2011 to focus on choreography, the buzz surrounding Darren Aronofsky’s film Black Swan, for which Millepied was ballet consultant and in which he danced opposite the film’s star (and now his wife) Natalie Portman, already signalled that exciting things lay ahead for him.
Having already created works for major companies, including American Ballet Theatre, City Ballet and the Mariinsky, Millepied founded LA Dance Project in 2012 along with composer Nico Muhly, art consultant Matthieu Hunery, producer Charles Fabius and film producer Dimitri Chamblas. Then in January it was announced that Millepied will be the new director of dance at the esteemed Paris Opera Ballet, taking up the position in September 2014. With Millepied at the helm, it’s no surprise that hard work is an indelible feature of LA Dance Project.
“They’re a small group that really works very closely together,” he says. “There’s definitely a sense of companionship and they work a lot.” He laughs. “Something definitely comes out of that in the work; it comes across.”
He’s right. The six dancers exude a kind of vitality, which is heightened by the palpable connection between them. They look at each other as they dance; they smile, they connect. In Millepied’s Moving Parts, the dancers slide moving screens patterned with abstract designs to create changes of scenery. They work together with precision and their dancing is athletic with stand-out moments including a brilliant duet danced by Nathan Makolandra and Morgan Lugo.
It’s clear as Millepied speaks that he’s proud of the collective and he’s right to be. The company already has a guaranteed budget for three years and dancers on contracts. Millepied credits Charles Fabius as being the man who “really runs the company,” explaining that the producer has had an enormously significant role ensuring that the collective has grown correctly and avoided the pitfalls any new company must navigate.
“We are right where I was hoping we would be,” he says, as the sound of an exuberant toddler rings out in the background. “We wanted to tour a lot,” he tries valiantly to continue against some loud singing. “Hold on,” he says apologetically. “Aleph, I’m on the phone my love,” he says talking to his two-year-old son. “Go see mommy.” He takes a breath, as I remind myself that ‘mommy’ is Oscar-winning actress Portman, and then launches right back in. “Evidently I would’ve hoped that we would be where we are but the fact that we are is exceptional. I know it’s small but we’re employing 13 people and creating a lot of new work. It’s been very exciting.”
The size of the company, according to Millepied, works to their advantage. It is what has allowed them to focus on collaborations with musicians, designers and visual artists and to take their work out of conventional theatre spaces and into galleries. “We might want to get to ten or 12 dancers but no more than that,” says Millepied of how the company might expand, “because we definitely need a sense of being able to pick up and go. There’s a really nice ability to do a lot of different things with that size.”
Of course, one can’t help but notice the irony of hearing this from the man who is about to take the reins at Paris Opera Ballet, the oldest national ballet company in the world; a venerable institution of 154 dancers with a formal structure and history that can be traced back to the very beginnings of ballet in the court of Louis XIV. Millepied was a surprise choice for some, at least in part because although he is French and first trained in France, his formative years as a dancer and his entire career have been spent in the US. Interestingly, if Millepied is nervous, it’s not about what you might expect.
“Of all things, it’s not so much the job, the size of the job, that daunts me,” he says, “it’s really moving back to France that daunts me most.” He laughs a little nervously. “I’ve become accustomed to living here [in the US] and I really love it. This country has been very good to me and my career in terms of the opportunities that I’ve had. I’m used to a certain mentality, a willingness to make things happen – you can really do that here. I just don’t know what it’s going to be like there. It’s going to be interesting and culturally it’s fantastic – LA doesn’t compare to the cultural life of Paris. The idea of seeing as much as I will and really being in the thick of it artistically will be great. I’m looking forward to that.”
He is also, he says, hopeful that LA Dance Project can continue even after he has relocated from the sprawl of LA to the packed arrondissements of Paris. He will retain some involvement, he says, certainly in terms of programming.
As for what his plans are for Paris Opera Ballet, which under a series of directors, most recently Brigitte Lefèvre, has a repertoire that ranges from 19th-century classics to work by Pina Bausch and Angelin Preljocaj, for the first time, Millepied sounds a little hesitant.
“I’m interested in keeping that variety of work that the company dances,” he says. “Mainly, when I start, I’m inviting people from the outside that are significant both in the modern dance world and ballet world and with a really sensitive approach to the music that is part of the repertoire.” He wants to focus on the French musical landscape, inviting French soloists to perform.
“I’m not interested in doing what everyone else is doing. I’m interested in clearly defining in a few years what Paris Opera is and what its repertory is. But then, ideally, I’m interested in growing choreographers in-house. There’s something about the country and its artists that I want to focus on. That’s it in a nutshell.” He pauses.
“It’s exciting to have the resources – everything is in house; 150 people working on costumes all year round. You can really go wild with your imagination.”
MORE INFO: LA Dance Project, Playhouse, tonight until 26 August, 7:30pm
Originally published in The Scotsman