A Return Back East to Make a Debut

Originally appeared on NY Times – OCT. 18, 2014

L.A. Dance Project Brings Millepied and Peck Works to BAM
OCT. 17, 2014

The dancers of the L.A. Dance Project are attractive, personable, skilled, individual. And the three works they’re performing in the company’s New York debut season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music are impeccably modern in their stage societies and in their movements. I take no pleasure in reporting that I took little pleasure from the program; yet there is plenty to commend. In particular, the two New York premieres both show particular advances by their choreographers, Benjamin Millepied, the troupe’s founding director, and Justin Peck.

Mr. Millepied’s “Reflections” (2013) is the evening’s most charming work. A strong impression is made by Barbara Kruger’s set, which gives us words in white on a red background; a wall says, “Stay” (later another wall descends, with “Go”), while the floor reads, “Think of me thinking of you.” (Sweet!)

The five dancers (three men, two women) are barefoot, in various shades of gray (costumes by Ms. Kruger); until the final scene, we see them in duets and solos. Each duet has give-and-take. People dance for each other. Women occasionally partner men as well as the more frequent reverse. Several same-sex duets occur. No duet reflects sexual infatuation; each suggests the colloquy of a sustained relationship.

There’s plenty of footwork, especially in a solo for the engagingly lively Aaron Carr, who makes every meter matter. The music is by David Lang, played by the pianist Andrew Zolinsky; it’s sparse, fragmentary, but quasi-melodic. Although it always suits the mood of each dance, closer music-dance correspondences are not evident. So I’m sorry to say, after seeing a piece so agreeable, that I find Mr. Millepied, the former New York City Ballet principal dancer, an accomplished choreographer but not a remarkable one. Only one delicious detail stays in the mind. Two men in the final ensemble slowly pace while flourishing their hands as if opening fans; the kind of ornamentation that Marius Petipa made a highlight of a ballerina solo, it changes our idea of these men’s characters altogether.

Justin Peck’s “Murder Ballades” (2013) takes its name from Bryce Dessner’s score. Is there murder in this choreography? If so, it passed me by. Likewise any murder in the music or décor is a matter strictly for hermeneutics. (My companion, a Peck loyalist, detected graveyard antics in the décor and first duet.) But it’s an attractive dance; and both Mr. Dessner’s music (played live by the sextet eighth blackbird) and Sterling Ruby’s set are more attractive yet. The score has vivid instrumentation, with marvelous upward string slides; and the very handsome, painterly set is an abstract array of rectangles in differently colored patterns.

An interesting feature in Mr. Peck’s choreography is his recurrent belief in overall structure. Whatever tensions “Murder Ballades” may contain are framed by larger patterns and symmetries; in that respect, this young choreographer is a classical artist. But not a dated one: Pointedly he shows us that same-sex partnering can be the equal of male-female partnering. (Some modern-dance choreographers made this breakthrough in the 1980s, and Mr. Peck is just one of several ballet choreographers this decade who have suddenly caught up.) Everything here is admirable and, alas, forgettable.

William Forsythe’s “Quintett” (1993), a calling card of the L.A. Dance Project, is a study in surface. In the Gertrude Stein line so often used today, there is no there there. The five dancers deliver marvelous mini-phrases that get stuck in a rut; Mr. Forsythe knows about ballet vocabulary and how to mix it with nonballet movement. It’s set to Gavin Bryars’s famous score “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” in which the same line is chanted endlessly.

You can see what Mr. Forsythe has learned from both George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham in mixing the orthodox with the unorthodox, and with a mind that seems far more inclusive than exclusive. And yet the mood of “Quintett” recalls not those artists but instead Maurice Béjart, that Euro-horror of sensationalist choreography, because everything here becomes so showy. Each dancer gets lots of wow effects. One enters like a crab crawling sideways. Penchée arabesques out of nowhere are standard. All of the dancers wheel their arms in big circles to draw attention to the way they step off balance or the fluidity of their torsos.

This is an anti-world that cues us to yell, “Yay! Bravi!” The Brooklyn Academy audience oblige