Notwithstanding its name, the L.A. Dance Project is an international touring company that spends most of its time in Europe. On Thursday it launched a residency (reportedly through this fall) at the Ace Hotel downtown with a three-part program notable for large-scale production values and a commitment to contemporary expression.
The venue itself, located on Broadway at 9th Street, is anything but contemporary. Built as the United Artists Theatre in 1927, it’s an overwhelmingly ornate structure in Neo-Inquisition style (officially Spanish Gothic). Lovingly restored, it seats 1,600, but like many movie theaters sinks in toward the front of the orchestra section, so ticket holders there must look up at the stage from an uncomfortable angle — not ideal for dance.
In the first of three performances (through Saturday afternoon), the seven dancers looked as beautifully trained and strongly coached as LADP had in its previous, sporadic local appearances. But only Justin Peck’s “Murder Ballades” delivered an emotional payload.
Originally from San Diego, Peck is a 26-year-old dancer in New York City Ballet who has clearly mastered Jerome Robbins’ ability to filter the American vernacular through the ballet vocabulary. Beautifully in sync with music by Bryce Dessner, six dancers traced ongoing relationships and a sense of community with great freshness.
Peck’s first duet went nowhere but after that the work built expertly to its powerful conclusion through more hookups, a few odd Paul Taylor-like moments of character disconnection and an engulfing hoedown sequence. The color-blocked set-collage by Sterling Ruby and costumes (by Peck) added to the luster.
Company founding director Benjamin Millepied contributed “Reflections,” a bloodless exercise accompanied by (but always unrelated to) Gloria Cheng’s performance of subtly atmospheric piano music by David Lang. Here the dancers tried on styles of motion as if they were fashions they never intended to buy.
Morgan Lugo and Julia Eichten played at being liquid and lyrical; Charlie Hodges buoyant and balletic; Nathan Makolandra and Rachelle Rafailedes brittle and spasmodic. As usual with Millepied, the loveless love duets showed considerable ingenuity regarding lifts but no connection beyond the gymnastic.
Two crimson billboards by artist Barbara Kruger (one reading “Stay,” the other “Go”) served as backdrops.
The evening also included what was listed as a preview excerpt: Hiroaki Umeda’s “Peripheral Stream,” slated for a Paris premiere the first week in March. Accompanied by Umeda’s pulsing electronic score, four hardworking dancers became lost in Umeda’s spectacular array of vibrating video grids filling the enormous screen behind them.
Most of the time what they danced had no effect whatsoever and left no afterimage. But in a few magical moments they ventured upstage and their bodies seemed to dissolve into the projections, as if they were transformed from flesh and blood into pure pixels.
Like it or not, Umeda may have created a defining artistic vision for our time: disembodied dance.
L.A. Dance Project
Where: Ace Hotel, 929 S Broadway, Los Angeles
When: 3 p.m. Saturday