It boggles the mind, defies logic, and perplexes dance aficionados throughout the West: for years, America’s second-largest city has lacked a world-class dance company.
Sure, luminaries like Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Lester Horton, Eugene Loring, George Balanchine, and Alvin Ailey have been coming to Los Angeles and finding inspiration and work since the early 20th century. Yet despite their presence, and the determined efforts of others, no dance group of national or international significance called L.A. home for more than a quarter of a century. John Clifford’s Los Angeles Ballet closed in 1985 after a troubled decade of existence. Even the Joffrey Ballet’s part-time residency didn’t last.
But in 2012, hope came to Southern California in the form of a dazzling and talented Frenchman: Benjamin Millepied. Seven years later, the small company he formed—L.A. Dance Project—has wowed critics and audiences in America and Europe (a 2016 Guardian review called LADP “a future force in dance”). Millepied has raised enough money to create a permanent performance space. And an ambitious fall festival of new choreography seeks to affirm LADP’s growing reputation as an important incubator of creative work. Perhaps Millepied’s success will finally give L.A. the global dance credentials it has sought for so long.
Born in Bordeaux in 1977, Millepied inherited fortunate genes—his father, Denys, was a decathlete, and his mother, Catherine, was a ballet dancer. After early training in France, he studied as a teen at the School of American Ballet and joined New York City Ballet in 1995. He was promoted to soloist in 1998 and named a principal dancer in 2001.
Millepied also demonstrated choreographic skills as a young man. He created well-crafted works for New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the School of American Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera, the Paris Opera Ballet, Ballet de Genève, and his own pickup company, Danses Concertantes, while still in his 20s and early 30s. He had already attracted some attention outside the dance world by the time he left New York City Ballet to pursue his creative interests in L.A.
Many assumed that Millepied’s decision to start a company in Southern California had been influenced by his deepening relationship with Hollywood. He had become romantically involved with actress Natalie Portman after meeting her on the set of the acclaimed 2010 film Black Swan—she starred; he choreographed. (They wed in 2012, have two children, and spend much of their time in L.A.) But Millepied says the decision emanated from his growing interest in the mythos of L.A. “I fell in love with the city and its history. I became fascinated by the idea of L.A. and its creative vitality.” He was also attracted to the city, he adds, because “there was no strong dance presence here.”
Millepied sought to create a resident dance company with a loyal audience, a national reputation, regular commissions, and a touring schedule. LADP presented its first performance in September 2012 at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
This debut venue was designed for truly optimum acoustics, not dance, but Millepied and his dancers embraced the space in a willfully eccentric and often brilliant program that included works by Millepied and choreographers William Forsythe and Merce Cunningham. “It’s a theater that imposes itself on you,” Millepied says of Disney Hall. “You’re sort of stuck with the architecture, which is fantastic. I like the idea of performing in an architecturally distinctive venue.”
Over the next few years, Millepied’s fondness for unlikely performance spaces became one of his dominant traits as a choreographer and programmer.
In 2014, he moved his company to another venue, the Theatre at Ace Hotel, a musty but storied 1,600-seat dowager. The Spanish churrigueresque movie house, built in 1927 as the flagship of United Artists, had become part of the boutique hotel chain aimed at a hipster clientele. On a mural high above the balcony, Mary Pickford and other United Artists founders look down on the stage as if expecting great things.
Perhaps feeling intimidated by their critical gaze, Millepied again sought a new performance space, moving the company in 2017 to a place decidedly less glamorous than LADP’s first two venues. But the new, 6,000-square-foot headquarters in a bare-bones building in L.A.’s arts district seemed aesthetically appropriate for Millepied’s 12-member company, offering high ceilings, skylights and exposed brick walls, room for administrative offices, two studios, and a stripped-down 150-seat performance space. Named after its address on Washington Boulevard, it’s called simply 2245.
Millepied’s presence in L.A. hasn’t been uninterrupted or without controversy. In January 2013, he accepted an appointment to lead the Paris Opera Ballet, a move that confounded some in the L.A. dance community. For the next three years, the majority of his creative energy was spent tending to that famous and notoriously hard-to-helm company. But he discovered, as other leaders had before him, that it was a place where tradition and politics often stymied creativity and managerial directives. Millepied resigned in 2016 and returned to Los Angeles to lead LADP full-time.
“It’s a struggle to run a big company,” Millepied says of the experience. “That model is old-fashioned. The goals that these bigger companies have are tricky—for ballet in particular. I definitely prefer a group that’s creative and small. I didn’t want to have a company where there is such pressure to put on work that fills a big house, no matter what. I wanted to be able to do new things.”
Millepied’s explorations often take him and his company far from home. In 2017, LADP began developing new works through a three-year partnership with the Luma Foundation in Arles, France. And in the summer of that year, the company traveled to Marfa, Texas’s fabled alterna-arts town, to create a series of performances called Marfa Dance Episodes, which combined live dance with streaming video.
Other creations, though, are quintessentially L.A. This summer saw the continuation of an ambitious reinvention of Romeo and Juliet in collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel, who conducted Prokofiev’s score in a multimedia concert at the Hollywood Bowl featuring 40 minutes of excerpts from the ballet.
Millepied’s work on Romeo and Juliet began last fall with a performance that fused live dance in unusual locations with a cinematic exploration of Disney Hall. In addition to serving as choreographer, Millepied was behind the roving camera, just as he was at the Hollywood Bowl.
“It doesn’t pay homage to any other version of the ballet,” Millepied says of his Romeo and Juliet. “What interested me was a more cinematic approach—combining video with live performance.” Millepied continues to develop the piece, which the company will present in Paris next year. “Every performance of it is kind of unique. I work differently with each space that we use.”
From late September through mid-November, LADP will present a provocative festival of interdisciplinary work at 2245 called L.A. Dances. Each performance will feature collaborative pieces involving L.A.-based choreographers, visual artists, musicians, and others, danced by the members of LADP. Participating artists include Charles Gaines, Kyle Abraham, Shannon Gillen, Jacob Jonas, Charm La’Donna, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Antonio Sánchez, Emily Mast, Gianna Reisen, and Tino Sehgal. A work by the late choreographer Bella Lewitzky, an influential figure in L.A. dance, will also be performed. Selected works from the festival will be presented again in Paris.
Millepied intentionally chose artists who had strong L.A. connections. “I think it’s important that we’re not just another dance company that’s commissioning works from whoever in the world,” he says. “I want the company to be very closely associated with L.A.”
As a choreographer, Millepied is determinedly experimental and multimedia oriented, and sometimes he succumbs to the avant-garde artist’s tendency to value process over result. His work can be maddeningly obtuse, and his continuing interest in interweaving film and choreography has resulted in pieces that seem torn between the two disciplines. Romeo and Juliet, for instance, was visually interesting but felt artistically disjointed.
Reflections, first performed in L.A. a few seasons ago, is similarly hobbled by warring multidisciplinary qualities. A collaborative creation with composer David Lang, artist Barbara Kruger, and Millepied’s dancers, the piece is broken into several short movements that seem like discrete studies in disconnectedness and longing.
In other pieces, though, Millepied combines fluid, serpentine movements, intimate duets, and deft shooting to create something sublime. Chaconne, a work captured on black-and-white video, begins with close-up portraits of the dancers as they sit on chairs arranged in a rough semicircle in a stark studio. A Bach work for solo violin provides an intense and somber score as the camera glides seamlessly through the kinesthetic slipstream; the dancers repeatedly launch themselves into intricate, mesmerizing phrases and, later, energetic group counterpoint. The camera, at times, is an active participant—almost like a member of the ensemble.
As Millepied enters his 40s, his vision of what a ballet troupe should be—small, adventurous, fluid, collaborative, egalitarian—is more true to L.A.’s spirit than a traditional company would be. That vision could at last be fully realized with L.A. Dances, the most daring and definitive project Millepied has tried so far. The festival could establish a dance aesthetic that is uniquely and intrinsically Los Angeleno.
Millepied is trying to build loyalty and a sense of ownership, essential qualities among dancers and audiences if a company is to succeed, he says. “There is a big difference between being a real company and being a group of people that gathers from time to time. I think people can sense that difference.”
Paul Hodgins is a musician, composer, lecturer, arts journalist, and critic. He wrote about playwright Qui Nguyen and South Coast Repertory in Alta, Issue 7.
L.A. DANCE PROJECT: L.A. DANCES
• Premieres Sept. 26; runs through Nov. 24
• 2245 E. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles
• A festival showcasing nine commissioned works by L.A.-based choreographers, visual artists, musicians, and others
Three Southern California dance organizations that push boundaries by combining choreography with other arts
The TL Collective: Founded by Los Angeles dancer-choreographer Micaela Taylor in 2016, the group fuses contemporary dance and theatrical hip-hop.
USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance: The degree program regularly features performances of work by faculty member William Forsythe and other groundbreaking choreographers, representing all genres of dance.
Wewolf: This multidisciplinary dance collective focuses on unusual projects that adeptly combine dance and visual arts.