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L.A. Dance Project Program Reinvigorates Age Old Stories

by Jessica Abrams
April 13, 2018
Wallis Annenberg Center
9390 N Santa Monica Blvd
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
(310) 246-3800
It began with a couple – a man and a woman – playing out their relationship in a fluid dance of intimacy and tenderness mixed with the dynamic interplay of opposing energies. Two more couples danced their story, and in the next piece, three more – the movement restrained and elegant, with a simmering sensuality bubbling beneath the surface. At the end – a family: mother, father, three children and the accepted level of dysfunction associated with the nuclear family in the modern age. How did these earnest and tender couples arrive at this point? How does the genuine and true become the corroded and soiled? To quote Rainer Maria Rilke: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

In some profound, evocative way, that is what the audience did last Friday night, April 6th, during a performance of L.A. Dance Project at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. With four pieces, each distinctly different in style, execution and meaning, the combined effect was that of a narrative arc in its own right that allowed the audience to travel with these lovelorn couples and arrive at a decidedly different place.

Founded in 2012 by former New York City Ballet principal dancer Benjamin Millepied, L.A. Dance Project’s mission is twofold: to present and encourage world-class dance in Los Angeles, and to foster creative collaborations in multi-disciplinary art forms where dance is at the forefront. Mr. Millepied, whose accomplishments include choreographing the movie “Black Swan”, directing numerous short dance films and helming a feature-film adaptation of Bizet’s “Carmen” slated for 2019, is one of a handful of people and television series responsible for helping move dance out of its rarefied status and into the mainstream. He chose Los Angeles to be the home of his company because its cultural scene had already begun an important revitalization.

In the first piece of the evening, “Martha Graham Duets”, the stark and intensely dramatic work of Martha Graham was crossed with a gentle fluidity that, as the evening wore on, made itself known to be Mr. Millepied’s signature stamp. One couple at a time, three in all, danced a level of intimacy and tenderness that allowed for the personalities of each dancer and the combined life force of the couples to come through. Occasionally a shape in the Graham vocabulary would stand out: arms bent in forty-five degree angles, but the dances moved from shape to shape with such lyricism that it was almost as if the Graham vocabulary were taking on a life of its own. The last lift, where Patricia Zhou’s legs were wrapped around Francisco Mungamba’s torso and he was turning her as she faced front was a beautiful monument to Graham set in sort of a diorama.

“Helix” served as a solid companion piece to the previous work – with more classically-based pas de deux occasionally interrupted by a flick of the wrist or a torso undulation. Certain signature moves stood out – like for example the dancers’ jumping into arabesque from a kneeling position – but in general the piece failed to move too far beyond the basic Balanchine idiom.

“Sarabande”, on the other hand, provided a palate cleanser in the dance equivalent of a refreshing sorbet – and made an entire meal of it. With a flautist performing onstage (and later a violinist), a lone dancer – Aaron Carr, sporting a checkered button-down shirt and jeans made for moving – engaged in a flirty romp that transported the Bach to which he was dancing out of the Baroque period and into the 1950’s with the dance equivalent of an “aww shucks” (as said by, say, Ricky Nelson). Carr’s movement combined a fun fluidity with snatches of more classical steps and poses; using them as a reference points as opposed to the whole story. Carr was soon joined by three other dancers – Axel Ibot, Francisco Mungamba and Kaitlyn Gilliland – and each dancer, moving into and out of each other’s arms, brought his and her personality to the mix, thus creating a patchwork of viewpoints and movement styles that worked like a dream.

“Yag”, choreographed by Batsheva’s Ohad Naharin, made for a perfect ending to this panoply of interplay between couples: a somewhat stark take on the nuclear family in the modern age and the dysfunction that can yield devastating results. One by one, the dancers told the same story about their family, with each dancer playing the part of a family member, in the end pronouncing that “Once, my family really, really liked to dance”. Utilizing props, spoken word, different pieces of music and movement styles ranging from go-go dance to ballet to acrobatics, the piece evoked a sense of doom and tragedy in the closed world of a household.

The evening provided a stunning set of contrasts; but more than anything, it told a story in its own right: one of love and loss and innocence and knowledge – basically, the story of paradise lost; and both Benjamin Millepied and his group of stunning dancers were up to the task.
L.A. Dance Project performing at The Wallis

L.A. Dance Project performing at The Wallis

Photo © & courtesy of Lawrence K. Ho


L.A. Dance Project performing at The Wallis

L.A. Dance Project performing at The Wallis

Photo © & courtesy of Lawrence K. Ho

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