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Review: L.A. Dance Project

Jan. 31, 2016 | By Bruce R. Feldman

LA. Dance Project, The Wallis, Beverly Hills, Jan. 30, 2016

L.A. Dance Project brought a program of three varied works to the Wallis in Beverly Hills over the weekend. That the short ballets, each about 20 minutes, offered varying degrees of satisfaction was beside the point. The main pleasure – and a considerable one, to be sure – came from watching the company of nine fresh, engaging talents dance with strength and fluid precision.

“Murder Ballades,” commissioned by the group in 2013, was first up on the bill. Its young, in-demand New York City Ballet choreographer Justin Peck, has explained that his intention was to address rising violence in America through the lens of popular folk songs that recount the events of a murder. The little known genre first appeared in the Seventeenth Century. For a more recent (and playful) example, think The Kingston Trio’s “Hang down your head, Tom Dooley/Poor boy, you’re going to die.”

The choreography is both intricate and abstract. There’s no clear depiction of the subject matter. It’s all subtext, but who cares? The dancing is spectacular and appealing. So, too, are the score and Sterling Ruby’s painterly set. It would feel at home as an installation at a modern art museum.

It’s clear that the company directors want dancers who are strong and technically superior, yet look and act natural.

Similarly non-narrative is “Harbor Me,” receiving its North American debut. In the program notes Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui describes a harbor as a “safe place,” but one not without the possibility of danger. “Can one person truly protect another or only change or destroy them?” Whether or not this idea is made clear in the piece, the three female dancers once again command our full attention, giving a muscular, tightly disciplined, yet unforced, expressive reading. (This physically challenging work originally was set on three men. The company now also performs it with an all female cast.)

The interpretation of the evening’s final work, “Hearts & Arrows,” is left solely to the viewer. There are no program notes to explain the intentions of choreographer Benjamin Millepied.. The dance is a series of vignettes set to music by Phillip Glass. The dancers form and reform cohesive groups, undulating in unison. They dance lightheartedly at times, recalling children playing games, or more athletically at others. Occasionally we see planes of dancers striding rhythmically across the stage. (This seems to be mandatory for any work set to the music of Phillip Glass.) It’s all highly gratifying to watch, if a bit detached. Echoing the structure of the Glass score, rather than build to a crescendo, the work simply ends.

Trying to import literal meaning to any of these ballets is frustrating and, perhaps, pointless. Ultimately the pleasure we take comes from the open and unforced strength and lyricism of the dancing. It’s clear that the company directors want dancers who are strong and technically superior, yet look and act natural. L.A. Dance Project’s dancers are tall and thin, attractive, neither too bulked up nor sinewy. They don’t even look like dancers. They don’t present themselves on stage as ballet stars do. They seem completely unaffected and unaware that they’re performing for us, which makes us want to like them even more.

If one of the company’s goal’s last night was to show us beautiful, unmannered yet artful dancing, it succeeded brilliantly. That is a testament not only to the troupe’s nine appealing performers, but to its rehearsal director, ballet master, and other artistic collaborators, as well. Millepied, who founded the group in 2011, has took a second position heading up the Paris Opera Ballet. He's just announced that he's resigning and returning to his company here. Los Angeles will be lucky to have him back.

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