As a choreographer, Benjamin Millepied arguably brings nothing new to the Southern California dance scene beyond the scale of his ambitions. But as a curator he’s made his L.A. Dance Project a unique cultural resource with an inaugural performance dominated by the kind of daring, world-class contemporary revivals that our home-grown companies lack the will or budget to attempt.
In a three-part program at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday (and repeating Sunday afternoon), Millepied’s quasi-local ensemble danced the first performance anywhere of Merce Cunningham’s controversial masterwork “Winterbranch” since it left the Cunningham company repertory in 1976.
FOR THE RECORD:
L.A. Dance Project review: A caption for a photo accompanying the L.A. Dance Project review in the Sept. 24 Calendar section misidentified Amanda Wells as Frances Chiaverini. —
Abstract Expressionism at its most extreme, this 1964 sextet remains oppressive in its pervasive darkness punctuated by occasional, random flashes of blinding light; in its silence shattered by a deafening, abrasive score (La Monte Young’s “2 sounds”); in its movement concept: all human activity - -individual or collective -- collapsing helplessly to the ground.
The original production evoked the Holocaust to some observers, and today “Winterbranch” might suggest life in Syria -- or perhaps the uneasy feeling of accidentally turning the wrong corner in a city at night and suddenly finding yourself on an unlit, unknown street with half-seen figures emerging here and there and a loud noise from someplace nearby generating a sense of danger.
If this seminal act of movement theater couldn’t display the Project’s technical prowess, William Forsythe’s innovative 1993 “Quintett” certainly could and did, marred only by a sound system that reduced to mush the vital orchestral component of Gavin Bryars’ “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.”
Against Bryars’ evolving, deepening sonorities, Forsythe turned classical ballet inside out: warping it, twisting it, adding infusions of sports movement, ordinary (pedestrian) action, gestural accents, even shake-that-booty pop dance -- but never overloading it or making the dancers into faceless instruments.
Indeed, long-limbed Frances Chiaverini looked like a star ballerina Saturday, and her duets with Morgan Lugo sizzled with the same charismatic virtuosity that Charlie Hodges brought to his solos. What’s more, the logistics of dance at Disney Hall served “Quintett” brilliantly, putting the audience in the same space as the dancers and helping all the choreographic components pop out with great immediacy.
PHOTOS: L.A. Dance Project
Millepied capitalized on that immediacy in the premiere of his “Moving Parts” to a violin, organ and clarinet score by Nico Muhly, played live above the stage. But here, unfortunately, his very, very ordinary choreography was continually upstaged and eclipsed by the exemplary dancing and the cleverness of the staging.
Yes, it was fun to watch the dancers manipulate Christopher Wool’s portable calligraphic scenic panels, reframing the performance dynamically many different ways. But the choreography itself had scarcely any movement invention to recommend it, except possibly in the second part during a throwaway cluster maneuver and a more developed duet for Lugo and Nathan Makolandra.
Not wholly romantic, or competitive or out for gymnastic display, that duet was all over the map expressively -- like most of the Millepied choreography that local audiences have seen- and ended with the dancers quizzically backing away as if silently asking the same question that some of us were asking: What was it that just happened?
You might argue that L.A. Dance Project is a New York company that had an extensive international tour booked about the time its local identity was signed and sealed with Music Center funding. Perhaps it will also become Lyon Dance Project or Sadler’s Wells Dance Project in its partnerships with foreign entities. No matter. If it takes a little cultural gerrymandering to get major works on major stages, the more carpetbaggers the better.
Besides the dancers mentioned, the Project personnel included Amanda Wells and Julia Eichten, plus musicians Phil O’Connor, Lisa Liu and Muhly.