Rreviewed by Steven Woodruff
Benjamin Millepied and his new, curatorial dance collective, L.A. Dance Project have their eyes set on a new kind of concept for bringing dance to Los Angeles audiences. The result on Saturday evening, however, looked more or less like what you might expect from any chamber sized company performing concert works for the stage. Their real success will depend on what happens next and how they sustain an ongoing evolution. The initial results were promising. They were also delivered with intensity and commitment by a crew of six powerful dancers in a varied and challenging program that included works by Forsythe, Cunningham and Millepied himself.
Dance at the Music Center has presented two other concerts at Disney Hall. The Cunningham Legacy Tour successfully turned the room into something resembling a studio performance space for its reconstruction of Roaratorio. Shen Wei Dance Arts used the space to great effect in its visually stunning program of Connect Transfer II in which dancers soaked with paint applied their bodies to a canvas that covered the floor. This time out, the Disney stage, designed primarily for music, presented nerve wracking challenges for Millepied’s dancers as they aimed for narrow doorways to make running or rolling exits. The conversion for dance also added banks of lights and an expansive black matte floor that covered the irregularly shaped stage. The seating which nearly surrounds the stage makes a particularly good statement for dance. You feel like you are there with the dancers rather than removed, peering at them as if into a diorama.
Forsythe’s Quintett (1993) opened the evening. Ballet dancers have an affinity for his choreography that borders on the worshipful. It is physically demanding and full of an extroverted technique. While Quintett is often viewed as a kind of memento mori, Forsythe makes his statement about loss via complex choreography and sinuous partnering filled with sailing lifts, carries and rescues. The movement is often off balance, reeling and capable of collapsing. Dancers turn, fall and rebound with a speed that is dizzying. But the movement also plays on the fact that this is a joyful piece celebrating connection, play and tenderness. The work was recently done for the first time in America by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, which has become an outpost of Euro Zone dance in the American heartland. Millepied’s company danced Quintett with authenticity. Charlie Hodges and Julia Eichten were brilliant throughout. They felt like a tribe, invested in the deep feeling that carries the work.
Much of the effect of Quintet is communicated by Gavin Bryars’ music, which loops a London street singer’s unaccompanied vocals (a Gospel-like excerpt of lyrics, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”) against an orchestrated arrangement, rich with implied harmonies. The texture grows as the piece progresses. The original music is just a few bars which are recirculated for twenty five minutes. The effect is a kind of musical mantra; loss is painful and sticks with a repetitive tenacity that is unshakable. Also onstage are a large dish shaped mirror on a short stand and a projector that eventually shoots a celestial collage of clouds against a back wall of the stage. The stage is flooded in a white light. It is a potent environment that is consistently elevated by the humanity of Forsythe’s movement. The real life quintet on Saturday, which also included Frances Chiaverini, Morgan Lugo and Nathan Makolandra, was convincing and beautiful.
Cunningham’s Winterbranch (he frequently coined compound titles gluing together two words) has lost little of its power to clear the theater since it was first created in 1964. As a title, Winterbranch conveys exactly the opposite of the violence that permeates the work. With an unrelentingly loud sound score by La Monte Young that mimics fifteen minutes of the 7th Avenue local grinding around a tight curve and lighting that does more to obscure the dancers than show them, Winterbranch can be confounding. Cunningham set about creating a piece that was about the physical act of falling. His dancers, suited up in black sweats are frequently invisible in the dim lighting. At times, the lights flicker or go out altogether. Late in the piece something resembling a miniature Zamboni with a flashing red light that transits the stage. In this performance the back wall of the stage is removed. In most theaters this achieves a kind of bare, industrial environment. It was less effective in this hall but during the work’s most dimly lit moments, the stage and background took on the appearance of a bleak parking garage.
Works such as Winterbranch are an acquired taste even for those willing to take on depressing themes. Mostly, this audience was willing to stick it out. The production which was staged by Jennifer Goggans and Robert Swinston (both of whom were Cunningham company dancers) gave a faithful accounting. On Saturday some did head for the exits but not until the piece was nearly over. Cunningham had a keen sense of just how much people might be able to take. But there is also expressive movement in Winterbranch. You can learn to love that pitched, airplane attitude that Cunningham uses repeatedly as one of the themes of his collapsing dancers. He also carries on, sometimes humorously, with the two things that you can do after you fall. Lying there and getting up, or, as happened frequently, being towed offstage on a large blanket.
The last of the evening belonged to Millepied’s choreography for Moving Parts. It didn’t begin to touch the depths plumbed by Quintett nor did it have the devastating personality of Winterbranch. Millepied has given the set for Moving Parts, in this instance, three oversized rolling panels with graphic designs by Christopher Wool, a prominent role. The dancers used the panels (often motoring them around the stage with abandon) to reconfigure space as the work moves from section to section. He seemed to make mostly decorative use not only of them but also his dancers. Additional light towers on stage stand in as markers for his new career as a film maker. (Five of his recent short films were screened in the lobby prior to the concert.)
Millepied referenced moments from both Quintet and Winterbranch in the movement for Moving Parts. The seething scrum from the Cunningham works reappears briefly as does one of the repeated gestures ( a lifted forth position with outstretched arms) from Quintett. Moving Parts seemed mostly dedicated to living up to its title. The dancers tended to overwhelm the choreography, especially the in solos for Charlie Hodges who continued to distinguish himself as the company’s brightest light. Also deserving praise was the live music, a trio for organ, violin and clarinet composed by Nico Muhly, who was also the organist. The soloistic violin part was played with gritty authority by Lisa Liu.
Millepied has put respectable effort into his new collaborative venture. In Quintet and Winterbranch the curatorial efforts were instructive and beautiful. In Moving Parts, we sense that we are watching the product of dance via think tank. In the end, the group effort divided among, costume and set designers, producers, composer and choreographer didn’t seem particularly unified. The whole added up to less than the sum of its parts. The heroes of the evening were the dancers themselves, who labored long and hard, often with spectacular results.
(Here are some additional notes about Winterbranch from Jeff Slayton, who was a Cunningham dancer during the 60s when Winterbranch was created. He spoke to me to me about his performances of the piece with Merce Cunningham: Cunningham (dressed in a skull cap) was the character that slithers across the floor in the beginning of the piece. During tours when Robert Rauschenberg was travelling with the company, Rauschenberg would make a sculpture of junk collected from backstage and that would become the “object” that transited the stage. One time it was a woman seated in a rolling office chair. In one performance, a woman who had become upset because she couldn’t see the action on stage, left her seat, walked backstage, and flipped on the work lights while the piece was in progress. Originally there was a spotlight that shone out into the audience. Winterbranch was always very abrasive. Cunningham was very secretive about his titles and what his works were actually about. And why not? It was his company and he could do what he wanted. I don’t think that theaters nowadays allow the kind of volume that accompanied the original Winterbranch performances.)