Benjamin Millepied and Music Center announce L.A. Dance Project


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The Music Center is giving birth to a splashy, blue-chip contemporary ballet company devoted to artistic experimentation, with a Hollywood pedigree, to boot.

L.A. Dance Project, founded and directed by Benjamin Millepied, is being launched with a commission, expected to last two years, from Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center. Millepied, 34, is a highly sought-after choreographer with ties to major ballet troupes worldwide. He retired less than a month ago from his position as principal dancer with New York City Ballet.


Millepied leapt into the celebrity stratosphere when he started dating actress Natalie Portman, whom he met while working on the Darren Aronofsky movie “Black Swan.” The couple are engaged and have a 5-month-old son, Aleph. With Millepied’s recent move out here, both now live in Los Angeles.

L.A. Dance Project will begin with just six dancers -– seven if Millepied performs -– and will have its premiere Sept. 22 and 23, 2012, at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Music Center officials are announcing on Monday.

Millepied is not creating a traditional company but rather an “art collective,” bringing together some of his longtime friends and associates, including composer Nico Muhly and producer Charles Fabius. The goal is to collaborate with writers, artists and arts institutions in Los Angeles. One idea is to create a site-specific work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and Millepied has begun talks with museum officials.

“To do a dance project today, and build a kind of vision, it’s so difficult that you cannot just take the old method,” Millepied said during an interview at a Silver Lake restaurant.

“The way companies have been doing it doesn’t work anymore. To me, we’re going to try to do our best to do interesting things, gather interesting artists and do projects that will not only be presented on the proscenium stage, but we want to go to where the young audience is.” This commission marks a major step-up in the Music Center’s commitment to homegrown dance. Center officials would not divulge L.A. Dance Project’s budget, but Renae Williams Niles, director of programming for the Music Center, said it fit within the regular $4.6-million annual budget for the Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center. Kaufman made a $20-million gift to the center in 2009, which helps to underwrite the series.

L.A. Dance Project is not being named a Music Center “resident company” -- a title last held by the Joffrey Ballet, which juggled a bicoastal residency between New York City and Los Angeles from 1983 to 1991. Indeed, Niles and Millepied were both cautious about the long-term future for the nascent company beyond its commission of the first program.


“It’s my hope that we’re entering a new partnership, a marriage, and we’ll see how it works and give it as much as we can,” Niles said, adding that Millepied’s interest in Los Angeles, and residence here, represented a great opportunity for the Music Center.

“To be able to be engaged so early on with an artist of his caliber, it felt like a creative risk worth taking.”

On the strength of his past work, and without his having hired a single dancer, Millepied has arranged for L.A. Dance Project to appear at Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet. A tour of the United States, Europe and Asia through 2013 is in the offing.

Dancer auditions are being held Tuesday at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center downtown. An online audition announcement declared that company members must “permanently reside in California.”

The Music Center’s imprimatur is valuable, carrying tremendous weight among audiences and donors. It’s unclear what affect its official support for L.A. Dance Project will have on the dozens of existing local companies, such as Los Angeles Ballet, which are all vying for attention and limited resources. Millepied said, however, that he wants to work with the local dance community too.

Millepied, while still a student at School of American Ballet in the 1990s, was singled out for leading roles by seminal choreographer Jerome Robbins, who became a mentor. He was invited into New York City Ballet at 18 and was promoted to principal dancer six years later in 2001. That was the same year Millepied, who was born in France, premiered his first original ballet, at the Conservatoire National de Lyon (where he also had been a student).


L.A. Dance Project won’t be Millepied’s first venture putting together a troupe. He gathered dancers for a chamber-sized group and started touring in 2002. He estimated he has now produced as many as 130 shows. Choreographic commissions from top-tier ballet troupes soon followed: Paris Opera Ballet, Russia’s famed Mariinsky Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, among others. But his work has never been performed in Los Angeles. That will be rectified in April, when the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève brings Millepied’s “Les Sylphides” and “Spectre de la Rose” to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Critics have praised Millepied’s ballets for their stylishness and craft, and have noted his exceptional talent in staging complex movements with many bodies. He is among a handful of the most in-demand dance-makers; this spring, he will make his fourth piece for New York City Ballet, set a new work on the Mariinsky, and choreograph the new musical “Hands on a Hardbody” at La Jolla Playhouse.

L.A. Dance Project’s first program will feature a Millepied premiere, with a new score by Muhly and visual design by noted New York painter Christopher Wool. The program also will include a revival of Merce Cunningham’s controversial 1964 “Winterbranch,” a movement exploration of falling bodies set to a mostly two-note score by La Monte Young, and William Forsythe’s “Quintett,” a 1993 study in loss and hope to avant-garde composer Gavin Bryar’s looping composition “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.”

“Having your own dancers, choosing your own dancers … it’s a very important step for a choreographer because I think you never repeat yourself when you have the same people in front of you,” he said. “If I can have that for two years, it would be really, really great. But again, this is our laboratory for ideas.”


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Benjamin Millepied on ‘Black Swan,’ Natalie Portman and his dancing future

ABT dancers offer their perspectives on ‘Black Swan,’ starring Natalie Portman

-- Laura Bleiberg