LA Dance Project’s debut last weekend at Musco Center for the Arts capped a busy few weeks for the company following a series of performances at their new Los Angeles performance space.  The repertory evening included a new work by New York choreographer Shannon Gillen, and two by company leader, Benjamin Millepied: Orpheus Highway, a film/dance collaboration, and a Los Angeles premiere, Bach Studies (Part I).  The evening was as substantial as it was varied with Bach Studiesanchoring the program in a work that offered an insightful and compelling dance version of Bach’s D Minor Partita, one of a set of six instrumental pieces for violin alone.

Millepied rolls with some of the identical didactic purpose behind Bach’s originals...

In his concept for Bach Studies Millepied rolls with some of the identical didactic purpose behind Bach’s originals which were designed to explore the limits of a single instrument while at the same time highlighting Baroque composition processes. Here it’s all about dance versions of imitative counterpoint, not gestural copies of the music exactly, but juxtapositions highlighting melodic threads, repeated strains of music, and the clarity that make this music both complex and listenable. That clarity is mimicked in the clever black and white costumes (Alessandro Sartori), a unified assemblage of combat pants, shorts, and tunic tops. A set of geometric, framed chairs become a metaphor for the plainly stated architecture of Bach’s music , and a bare stage with exposed lighting make the connection that the polarities of antique music and modern composition can exist in a symbiotic relationship.

Elsewhere in Bach Studies groups of dancers face off in small groups, one group dancing, while another moves in unison on the floor. In the second movement Corrente, one woman is on pointe while the others are not. The work is laced with the counterpoint of authentic movement, folksy dance moves, classical steps, and courtly gestures. The opening three movements with varying arrangements of solo dancers and small ensembles act as a kind of prelude to the huge and reckless concluding Chaconne. You would not be wrong in thinking that it brings to mind the standard Baroque era prelude and fugue pairings. It effectively recasts Bach Studies with its own independent structure.

There was some wisdom here showing there are moments where the best reflection of music can be in not stuffing it full of more movement.

Two thirds of the way through the Chaconne the increasingly complex and thick textures let go and the music shifts from D minor to D major. It’s a sunny moment full of quiet that clears the air and asks both the listener and player to take break. Millepied at this point has assembled his dancers at the back of the stage seated on chairs. There was some wisdom here showing there are moments where the best reflection of music can be in not stuffing it full of more movement. Here, at last, was someone who was really listening.

Group of dancer together lifting one female dancer as she reaches upward
Photo: Sergi Alexander

Opening the program was Orpheus Highway. It seems a better piece now than when I first saw it. Set somewhere on the outskirts of Fresno or on a derelict rail head in the California Central Valley, it limns some of the style of Jerome Robbins’ NY Export:Opus Jazz with its sneakered cast in street clothes and an oblique, dark narrative. And like the Robbins choreography, the occasional ballet move filters in to a vocabulary largely drawn from other kinds of natural movement. It weaves together a continuous film with the actions of a cast of nine who dance in unison with, or elaborate on, the screen footage. Orpheus Highway also pursues a kind of counterpoint with its competing visual layers. In style it echoes old fashioned American cinema technique with live action against a filmed background. This is especially true of the closing section in which the dancers are being chased down a deserted road. The work makes good use of the three movements from Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet and its propulsive often percussive string playing. The film concept and direction was by Millepied. The two soloists, David Adrian Freeland Jr. and Rachelle Rafailedes as an Orpheus and presumably, Eurydice, were excellent, especially Ms Rafailedes, who flung herself at the role with tireless abandon and powerful dancing. ability to deliver on any kind of dance thrown at them.

Shannon Gillen’s RUN FROM ME for two couples, was commissioned by LADP and supported by a technical residency at Musco Center. It promised a lot, but the long, slow burn of most of the work only began to deliver on its themes of alienation and personality near the end. A pair of swinging overhead lights, which cut vectors across the stage at head height, became a physical obstacle course mirroring the dancer’s internal one. It is set against a grim assemblage of ambient sounds and electronica by the Northern England band, Fieldhead. Part of the LADP raison d’etre is to open platforms for new choreographers and to develop new choreography. Gillen’s theatrical and hyper physical movement seemed a comfortable fit for a company that has invested in a wide range of legacy performances (Graham, Cunningham) as well as new dancemakers. That the work seemed to belong to these dancers is a testament to what some small, American, all-purpose dance companies like LADP are able to achieve: an ability to deliver on any kind of dance thrown at them. Special mention goes to apprentice dancer Daisy Jacobson who dug in and looked as accomplished as her peers in a tough, often grueling piece of dance theater.

(The reviewed performance took place June 16, 2018 at the Musco Center for the Arts, Chapman University in Orange, California.)

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