From the outside, the flat, unremarkable building blended seamlessly with the other flat, unremarkable buildings lining East Washington Boulevard on the industrial edge of downtown Los Angeles. If you passed by, you wouldn’t guess that inside you’d find one of few venues in the city devoted entirely to dance incubation and performance.
But this is the home of L.A. Dance Project, the contemporary ballet company that celebrity choreographer Benjamin Millepied founded and leads as artistic director, and on a recent hot summer day the troupe was rehearsing “Chapter Song” by 2013 MacArthur fellow Kyle Abraham.
As one dancer led rehearsal, Millepied, 42, sat relaxed on recently constructed wooden risers. L.A. Dance Project signed a five-year lease on the building in 2017, and though the new seating arrangement will fit about 100 people, Millepied is already looking to the future — to the growth of the space and his company, its impact on the city and its place in the dance scene here.
The goal is to have 400 seats, he said. “I’d love to have another studio and more time and space, funds, and more residencies, because that’s what the artists need.”
To Millepied, L.A.'s dance scene has the potential to reach new heights, especially with the influx of young talent to burgeoning programs like the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, which graduated its inaugural class this year. And he hopes to garner outside attention for the entrepreneurial spirit of dance in the city.
For its next step, the company will perform Abraham’s “Chapter Song” at Millepied’s new festival celebrating the future of dance in the city. L.A. Dances will run from Sept. 26 to Nov. 24 and feature L.A. Dance Project performing new and historical works from an eclectic mix of choreographers including Charm La’Donna, Madeline Hollander, company dancer Janie Taylor, late modern dance pioneer Bella Lewitzky and Millepied.
A former principal dancer with New York City Ballet, the French-born Millepied found mainstream recognition after choreographing the ballet horror film “Black Swan” and later marrying its star, Natalie Portman. In 2012 he moved to L.A. and co-founded L.A. Dance Project with Charles Fabius, receiving $250,000 in financial backing from the Music Center. He hired six dancers — all NYC transplants — immediately secured a number of international bookings and had his company’s local debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall with a program that included a revival of Merce Cunningham’s 1964 “Winterbranch” and William Forsythe’s 1993 “Quintett.”
“We’ve never had anything kind of like the splash that Ben has made, for better or for worse,” said Ben Johnson, performing arts program director at the city of L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs.
While Millepied’s arrival “really reinvigorated the conversation about dance and has brought attention to the city for his company,” Johnson said, “there’s also been a lot of choreographers and artists who have been working here for a long time that had less support.”
Some in the local dance community took particular issue with Millepied’s hiring decisions.
Millepied maintains his position that major dance companies “historically don’t hire just from the city that they’re in. They hire the best dancers possible,” adding, “I have no bias.”
But reflecting on the experience, Millepied says he now empathizes with the pushback.
“It was annoying to companies that were here and weren’t getting the same opportunity,” he said. “There should be more institutional support for organizations here. ... I can completely understand that now that I’ve been here for eight years.”
In the years since its founding, the company grew to 12 dancers and the budget to nearly $3 million. L.A. Dance Project has performed in Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, New York’s Joyce Theater, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts and Ace Hotel. It’s one of the rare companies that pays its dancers as full-time employees, allowing artists to focus fully on their craft versus taking on side hustles to pay rent.
But the landscape for dance has become even tougher in recent years, Millepied said.
For dance companies, finding financial support is challenging when people are more likely to support political organizations and ask, “Why should I give to the arts when the Amazon is burning?” Millepied said.
He’s one of the rare people who can say ‘I want to work on two films and choreograph three ballets, and open a space, and create a residency program and the ‘ands’ just keep going, and going and going.
L.A. Dance Project still receives the majority of its funding from touring, corporate sponsors and private donors outside L.A., but that’s changing as the company has focused on establishing a deeper connection to the city.
Millepied’s stint as director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet was the impetus for refining his vision and understanding of what a dance company should be. After starting the role in 2014, his resignation a little more than a year later was a surprise shakeup at the centuries-old institution.
At the Paris Opera Ballet, Millepied hired Forsythe as an associate choreographer and began an emerging choreographer training program. His goal was to help the Paris Opera Ballet better reflect its community.
One of his biggest hurdles in the role, though, was addressing the lack of diversity at the company, he said. “I very much got pushback at the idea that I thought everybody shouldn’t look the same.
“I was told it gave the company strength,” he added. “That was a very disconcerting thing to deal with, especially since I didn’t have the power to hire.”
Returning to L.A., Millepied decided, “I really need to focus on L.A, on the city, on the artists here, on reviving [repertory] and just take the time,” he said. “It’s not about the results now; it will take years and years.”
He’s doing that by offering more shows in the city, commissioning emerging choreographers — including recent CalArts MFA graduate Jinglin Liao — offering residency programs, finalizing a partnership with CalArts and partnering with a local nonprofit for educational programming. He emphasized L.A. Dance Project is not just a choreographer’s company, but one focused on repertory and reviving historic American works.
“It’s paying off already in terms of the community that’s starting to support the company,” Millepied said.
Choreographer Abraham said he respects Millepied’s passion and imagination.
“He’s one of the rare people who can say, ‘I want to work on two films and choreograph three ballets, and open a space, and create a residency program,’” Abraham said. “And the ‘ands’ just keep going, and going and going.”
The day after the recent rehearsal, Millepied left for New York to continue working on his debut feature film, “Carmen,” which will begin filming early next year. A retelling of the classic 1875 opera, the film centers on the story of a young woman leaving Mexico for Los Angeles.
Starring Jamie Dornan and Mexican actress Melissa Barrera, “Carmen” has a creative team that includes Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz and Oscar-nominated “Moonlight” composer Nicholas Britell. Millepied described it as a “drama where music and dance don’t take you out of your emotional journey.”
In 2020 Millepied will premiere his experimental production of “Romeo and Juliet” in France, an L.A.-centric retelling of the classic ballet featuring live projections, mixing concert dance and film. The company performed excerpts of the work in collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last fall at Disney Hall and again this summer at the Hollywood Bowl.
As L.A. Dance Project nears its 10-year anniversary, Millepied looks forward to growing the company — “the idea is that it’s a slow burn,” he said. In 20 years, he envisions doing a retrospective while continuing to explore other creative paths, including film. “My hope is, someday somebody else will run this company,” he said. “But it will grow to be a company of this city that stays.”
When: Sept. 26 through Nov. 24