Benjamin Millepied's L.A. Dance Project is Becoming a Company Like No Other
It's fitting that choreographer Benjamin Millepied named a recent work On the Other Side. After a difficult two-year tenure as artistic director of the Paris Opéra Ballet, he is happily settled in Los Angeles and reemerging with big plans for L.A. Dance Project, the contemporary company he founded there in 2012.
Today, his ambitious vision is redefining what an independent dance company can do: grow into an online dance platform and a lifestyle brand, host a building and performance space, and build an international presence.
A New Home
"Everything starts with a place where you can actually receive patrons," says the former New York City Ballet principal, who turns 40 next month and lives in L.A. with his wife, the actress Natalie Portman, and their two children.
"Once you have that, you have rehearsals, you have showings, you have education programs, you have exhibitions, you have classes," he says. "Suddenly you are reaching more people, and you become a significant part of the community."
LADP's Rachelle Rafailedes and Julie Eichten. Photo by Joe Toreno
Last winter he signed a lease for a new headquarters in a contemporary art gallery in L.A.'s art district. Along with high ceilings, skylights and exposed-brick walls, it offers 3,000 square feet that will include offices, two studios and a 200-seat performance space. The company plans to move in this October.
The building will be more than a home for LADP. "The problem with the performing arts in L.A. is that there is no infrastructure," he says. "Theaters seldom present the talent that is living and working in L.A."
So in keeping with LADP's collaborative ethos, Millepied plans to cultivate cross-genre work by L.A.-based artists and offer residencies and performance opportunities. (He is seeking funding through his extensive, international network of fiscal sponsors.) Audiences can expect affordable ticket prices, food trucks and a relaxed atmosphere.
"Even when this company started, it was about collaborating with many different types of artists on one project," says former NYCB principal Janie Taylor, who has joined LADP as a dancer. Her husband, Sebastien Marcovici, is ballet master. "That's one of the things Benjamin will be able to do more of, being here."
Janie Taylor foam rolling before rehearsal. Photo by Joe Toreno
Building the Brand
Millepied is expanding LADP's digital presence, too, transforming its website into what he describes as a "portal for dance" (similar to his 3e Scène project at POB). One part is a series of workout videos created by Millepied and the dancers, filmed at outdoor locations around L.A. "There's a personal approach to each workout because of the dancer who designed it," he says.
A magazine-style journalism component will evolve over time to encompass current topics, interviews, and essays on dance history. And the existing online store will expand well beyond dancewear. "If we do it right, LADP can also be a lifestyle brand," says Millepied, "where the company can actually make money through licensing of the name."
The company's online store: forladp.com
Creating A Global Presence
In the meantime, the company's already far-reaching endeavors will continue at full speed. This year's schedule includes performances in Dubai, Singapore, Shanghai, New York and beyond, plus an annual residency in Arles, France.
Company rep continues to include classic and commissioned works, like Merce Cunningham's 1964 Winterbranch, William Forsythe's 1993 Quintett and Justin Peck's 2013 Murder Ballades. Millepied's new duet for Taylor and associate artist Carla Körbes, a former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal, premieres next month at The Joyce Theater.
A Cinematic Scope
Millepied loves filmmaking and has created and commissioned dance films that are archived on the LADP website (including Academy Award–winning director Alejandro Iñárritu's 2012 Naran Ja). He is currently in development on his own feature-film debut, and seems to have found a new niche. "Film gathers all the things that I love. It's narration, it's emotion, it's photography, it's lighting—it's all the arts in one," he says. Shooting is planned for 2018.
L.A.'s open-mindedness and contemporary point of view, not to mention its movie industry, suit Millepied and accommodate the scope of his vision. "I want to make an impact in my lifetime," Millepied says. L.A. feels like the right place for him to do that.
"We're being embraced by the community," he says. "I feel like there is more room here to really do something new."
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT
Whatever your feelings about Wayne McGregor's heady, hyper-physical choreography, we can all probably agree on one thing: We'd really, really love to pick his brain. And tomorrow, Dance Umbrella, a UK-based dance festival, is giving everyone the chance to do exactly that.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.