DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Benjamin Millepied’s neck hurts. The ghost of an old injury is back to haunt him at the wrong time, just weeks before his new company’s debut at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. While Millepied, 35, has mostly transitioned to a career as a choreographer, the Sept. 22 and 23 concerts were also to be among his final professional performances on stage.
For now, however, the dancer can’t dance.
But forget the neck — Millepied has far weightier tasks on his mind. His new company, the L.A. Dance Project, has the promise of being an exciting new initiative that just might fill a cultural void in Los Angeles. The troupe’s debut is the city’s most anticipated dance event in years.
Los Angeles nurtures a world-class symphony. Its opera company is widely respected. The theater scene has an elite institution in the Center Theatre Group, and the city is home to two superlative contemporary art museums, as well as the Getty.
Then there’s dance, and L.A.’s long, unsuccessful record in growing a world-class company. Not that others haven’t tried. The Joffrey Ballet, one of the most recognized names in dance, took up residence at the Music Center in the 1980s, only to falter without a groundswell of audience or philanthropic support. The Los Angeles Ballet formed in 2006 and is growing, but the Culver City-based troupe is still widely unknown and its schedule is sparse.
Many hope, and some actually believe, that Millepied has the right mix of pedigree, name recognition and fundraising savvy to build a company that can fill theater seats, generate sustained audience interest and, finally, put Los Angeles on the dance map.
Although his dancers have yet to take the stage, Millepied too is already thinking long term.
“I definitely hope to be creating a lasting institution,” he says in a soft French accent. “I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise.”
On a Wednesday morning in late August, Millepied, stiff-necked, cruises from his home in Los Feliz toward the Historic Core’s Los Angeles Theatre Center, where the L.A. Dance Project occupies two third-floor studios. As Millepied approaches the faded Beaux Arts former bank building at around 11 a.m., the company’s dancers are already nearing the end of morning rehearsal. Administrative staffers in a separate office are busy planning the tour that will commence immediately after the Disney Hall concerts.
Millepied darts out of the elevator wearing a crisp blue Dodgers cap with a curved brim and a pair of black sunglasses that belong to his wife, the actress Natalie Portman. A half-week’s worth of stubble blankets his carved jawline. He seems rushed and exhausted, but relieved to be in the studio. After dropping his bags and ditching the cap in his office, he whisks into the rehearsal space, hugs a visiting instructor and offers smiling salutations to the sweaty dancers.
The Bordeaux-born Millepied — pronounced “meel-pee-ay”; the name translates almost providentially to thousand-footed — was awarded a grant from the French government in 1993 to study in the New York City Ballet’s school. He matriculated into the company, staying for 16 years, and was a principal dancer from 2001 until he retired in 2011. In 2004 and 2005 he directed the Morris Center Dance Workshop in Bridgehampton, New York, and from 2006 to 2007 served as choreographer-in-residence at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York.
As a choreographer he already has an impressive resume, with pieces presented in venues from Lincoln Center to the Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opera Ballet. His crossover moment came when he was hired to choreograph Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 ballet-driven psych thriller Black Swan. The attention ratcheted higher when the media learned that he and Portman, who would go on to win the Best Actress Oscar for her role in the film, were in a relationship. They were recently married after Portman gave birth to a son.
So while Millepied says he has long had a “fascination” with Los Angeles, his move and sudden artistic devotion to the city coincide with a practical turn in family life. But the city offers a unique professional opportunity, too: Were Millepied to start a company in New York, he would be a small fish in a pond shared with giants like the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. Here, he’s in the spotlight from day one: The L.A. Dance Project’s debut is the opening show in the 10th season of the Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center series. The series is usually staged at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but the L.A. Dance Project will perform at the higher profile Disney Hall.
“I could have waited for or worked on trying to get some position somewhere that would open up, but what’s really exciting is starting something from scratch that you really create, where you’re not stepping in anyone’s shoes or there are not expectations to keep up an institution that’s partly a museum and so forth,” he says. “And somehow this fascination with L.A. has been existent for a long time and a fascination as to why, as important a city as it is, it wasn’t one that was known for its dance necessarily.”
He’s not the only one perplexed by the minor role dance plays in L.A.’s cultural scene. Michael Ritchie, artistic director of the Center Theatre Group, moved from New York to Los Angeles in 2004 to take the job. Why there wasn’t a resident concert dance institution was “one of the first questions I asked when I got here,” he said.
“This is a creative capital of the world and dance is one of those creative endeavors that I hope would have a prominent place here,” Ritchie said. “There are kids living in this city that could be the next generation of great dance artists that, if they’re not exposed to it, they’ll be a loss to them and to another generation of patrons and dance admirers.
“I don’t know that Center Theatre Group would benefit in any way from a strong dance company in Los Angeles, but Los Angeles would benefit from a strong dance company.”
Renae Williams Niles, who puts together the Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance calendar, said a relatively young philanthropic community in Southern California has made it difficult for the area to nourish a resident dance institution. She is among the many who hope Millepied can grow the L.A. audience and inspire more benefactors.
“It’s our hope that the more the community sees dance here at the Music Center, at REDCAT, at UCLA and at the Broad [Stage], that we’re cultivating patrons and hopefully future donors,” she said. “But that has been part of the problem.”
If Millepied is to establish a dance company in Los Angeles, he wants to do it on his terms. It’s clear that his model is not one of the grand troupes that exist in New York.
While Millepied is the founder and visionary in chief of the L.A. Dance Project, the group is billed as a collaboration among five people. They include the composer Nico Muhly, who wrote the music for “Moving Parts,” a Millepied original that will have its world premiere in the Downtown shows (also on the bill are Cunningham’s 1964 “Winterbranch” and William Forsythe’s 1993 “Quintett”). Art consultant Matthieu Humery, producer Charles Fabius and film producer Dimitri Chamblas round out the team.
Although the company’s debut is in the most formal of L.A. stages, Disney Hall, Millepied said the goal is also to perform in more accessible venues, from rooftops to schools, and to work closely with an array of area artists. In the summer, for example, he partnered with local painter Mark Bradford for Framework, a series of three free performances inside the Museum of Contemporary Art. Millepied and company dancer Amanda Wells pirouetted amid paintings and gallery goers as a lone violinist plucked Bach and a recording of Bradford discussing his work played.
On the L.A. Dance Project website, Millepied has posted two videos of his collaborations with the smooth L.A. street dancer Lil Buck. In one, Lil Buck does his krump-meets-pop-locking routine on the streets of the Arts District to a soundtrack of Bach’s 1741 “Aria” from the Goldberg Variations picked on an electric guitar by Millepied’s brother, Laurent (the videos will be screened in BP Hall 30 minutes prior to the Sept. 22-23 shows).
If there’s a critique of the newcomer, it’s in the name and makeup of the troupe. Some local dance world players question how a company founded by someone who recently moved here, with a creative team that includes not a single curator or dancer from Los Angeles, can carry the cultural flag of the city.
“He’s a ballet superstar and I think what he’s doing has great merit and I’m not resentful by any means. I just think it’s interesting — why is it called the L.A. Dance Project?” asked Jamie Nichols, the founder and producer of Celebrate Dance, which stages an annual exhibition of local dance groups at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. “The only reason is because he’s doing it here in L.A. and it’s funded by the Music Center.”
Introduce this topic to Millepied and his usual calm, gentle demeanor turns irritable and deliberate. The collaborations with Bradford and Lil Buck, plus planned projects with the artist Alex Israel and others, are ample evidence that the company is engaged with the city, he says. He also dismisses the suggestion that he should have hired local dancers.
“It’s an ignorant criticism,” he says. “I will hire the very best dancers I can find. I’ve got a big job on my hands and success is my concern and when I find someone good here, I’ll hire them. I couldn’t be more involved with or curious about what’s going on here and I get hot-headed because I’m hearing it once a day right now. It’s stupid.”
Then there’s the fact that, while Los Angeles may lack an iconic resident dance company, it has a healthy tradition of the experimental, multimedia and site-specific work that the L.A. Dance Project promises to explore. Since 1987, Heidi Duckler Dance Theater (formerly Collage Dance Theater) has won acclaim for its works in odd places, from a laundromat to a vacant penthouse in a Financial District high-rise. In the past decade, companies such as Regina Klenjoski Dance Company out of Long Beach and Rosanna Gamson/World Wide have established themselves as serious contemporary dance groups.
The existing scene is not lost on Millepied.
“There is a lot going on in dance here that’s exciting,” he said. “I hope that my project will only help to solidify what’s already here and gather what’s already here.”
What may ultimately set Millepied and his team apart is that, like it or not, the existing companies lack the stature and draw to open the Music Center’s 2012/2013 dance season at Disney Hall. The L.A. Dance Project’s experimental side may likewise mean that it will never be that typical ballet institution anchored by Balanchine and the form’s warhorses.
“We don’t have a big, huge, hundred-dancer ballet company, nor do we have to, but I certainly don’t see L.A. Dance Project becoming that,” Williams Niles said. “I see it as having its own voice, and I think the fact that L.A. Dance Project has a certain level of flexibility only heightens its future capacity.”
Back at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Millepied, sitting patiently through an interview, suddenly becomes distracted when the music that accompanies Forsythe’s “Quintett” drifts out of the rehearsal studio. He insists on taking the interview into the room, to observe his dancers from the doorway.
He originally hoped to dance in the piece — he has never appeared in a work by Forsythe — but it’s not looking good. He grabs his neck and massages it for a moment, then steps into the studio as the dancers are in mid-routine. He thrusts one leg up and spins around once, then retreats to the door.
Two weeks before the Disney Hall shows, the dancers for the program are announced. Millepied is not among them.
His future as a concert dancer is uncertain. Maybe the neck will heal. Maybe not, but he surely lacks the time to commit to a rigorous rehearsal schedule. In addition to overseeing the artistic direction of the L.A. Dance Project’s upcoming tour, he is developing collaborative projects on the side, thinking about fundraising to sustain and build the company and submitting to a litany of media interviews.
It is clear that Benjamin Millepied still longs to be on the floor as a dancer, but he is embracing the new slate of demands that comes with the shift from performer to institution maker in a new city.
The neck might be fixable, but not without regular physical therapy.
“That’s the one thing I don’t have time for right now,” he says.
The L.A. Dance Project performs Sept. 22-23 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., (213) 972-0711 or musiccenter.org.
Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at email@example.com.
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