Magazine

The L.A. Experiment

Benjamin Millepied's new company tests the city's appetite for concert dance.

 

 

Millepied rehearsing his ballet Plainspoken with New York City Ballet dancers. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

 

It’s hard to keep track of Benjamin Millepied. The man whose surname translates to “1,000 feet” appears to be everywhere at once, with 1,000 hands running 1,000 projects. He may be the dance world’s answer to James Franco.

Last November, Millepied announced plans to assemble his L.A. Dance Project, which debuts this month in conjunction with the Los Angeles Music Center. Within the last five years, he has choreographed or staged his ballets for major-league companies like New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opéra Ballet, and the Mariinsky Ballet; danced—and since retired—as a principal dancer with NYCB; choreographed Khovanshchina and The Bartered Bride for the Metropolitan Opera; choreographed the musical Hands on a Hardbody (slated to come to Broadway this season); and directed six short films. He also choreographed the movie Black Swan, met Natalie Portman, started a relationship, and the couple had a son, Aleph. Oh, and he’s the face of Yves Saint Laurent’s new fragrance L’Homme Libre.

Whew. A free man, but a very busy one.

Right now, however, Millepied is fixing his focus on the L.A. Dance Project. But why Los Angeles, a city historically indifferent to dance? Trips to L.A. with NYCB, he says, made him “fall in love with the city. I thought a lot about how to bring dance here. I know Balanchine wanted to do it.” Los Angeles is, not coincidentally, where he lives with Portman and Aleph. But he also likes the youthful energy of the city’s often unacknowledged arts movement. “In terms of dance it sort of feels like the visual artists’ scene in New York in the 1960s,” he says. “It has a feeling of freedom that is encouraging after New York, which is incredibly saturated with so many exhibitions.”

Talks with the L.A Music Center prompted Millepied to ponder a new way to produce dance. “I thought, I’ll put on one tour and see how it goes,” he recalls. Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center serendipitously agreed to commission the first program. Millepied considered Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project as a model: six dancers, non-elaborate productions, funding from a foundation, and touring, especially to Europe. Millepied has used his connections to solidify partnerships with Maison de la Danse in Lyon, Sadler’s Wells in London, and Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet; each residency will produce a premiere within the next two years.

What he didn’t want was to start a satellite Balanchine company. “You need a corps—that’s 6 million dollars immediately,” he says. “It’s not what I was interested in. I have danced Balanchine all over the place. I want to work with artists who are embracing their time.”

But he imagines resurrecting seminal, seldom-performed collaborations by venerated choreographers. The premiere program includes Merce Cunningham’s Winterbranch (1964), with piercing music by La Monte Young and a set by Robert Rauschenberg. Winterbranch disturbed ’60s audiences, who variously interpreted it as images of race riots, concentration camps, or the atom bomb. Millepied simply describes it as “a really riveting piece that is dance-intense.” (He loved Cunningham’s work so much that he once auditioned for his company, but didn’t join because, “I was not prepared to only dance one man’s work.”)

Also included on the program are William Forsythe’s Quintett, an elegiac 1993 piece set to a hypnotic score by Gavin Bryars; and a Millepied premiere, with new music by favorite collaborator Nico Muhly and visual design by painter Christopher Wool.

“Powerful but difficult works” is how Charles Fabius, the producer for the L.A. Dance Project, defines the program. “There is no sense we want to ‘please’ the crowds in L.A.,” he says. “How that goes over remains to be seen, but we think it’s an interesting challenge.”

Choosing these pieces, says Millepied,“is a statement that even though I’m not American, I have worked and danced here my whole career, so I wanted to be very careful not to be the American company that does all European work.”

 

Pacific Northwest Ballet in Millepied’s 3 Movements. Photo © Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.

When Millepied speaks of collaboration, he extends the meaning to all those working around him. He calls L.A. Dance Project—notice the absence of the word “ballet”—an “art collective” with composer Muhly, art consultant Matthieu Humery, producer Fabius, and film producer Dimitri Chamblas. (He calls his collaborators his “think tank.”)

Will Los Angeles audiences support LADP (which is a resident of L.A. Theatre Center)? “I’m going with what I believe in,” says Millepied. “It already has a life.” His intention reaches “beyond just putting ballets on the stage” to include projects outside of theaters and in museums, such as his collaboration last summer with installation artist Mark Bradford at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

And he’s not seeking initial overexposure in the press. “It’s going to take time for us to really get a unity and a look,” he says. His past executive experience helps. Between directing his own company Danses Concertantes, the Morriss Center Dance Workshop, and the annual summer Nantucket Atheneum Dance Festival, he’s produced about 130 performances over a decade. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes already!” he admits. “I have a chance to walk into this project at a time when everything connects.” For now, Millepied isn’t pursuing other choreographic gigs or even restaging existing ballets (although he admits he would find time for NYCB or the Paris Opéra).

 

Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève in Millepied’s Spectre de la Rose. Photo by GTG/Vincent/Lepresle, Courtesy Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève.

Millepied has announced four of his six dancers: Frances Chiaverini (of Armi­tage Gone! Dance and Luca Veggetti’s work), Julia Eichten and Nathan B. Makolandra, all Juilliard graduates with experience in choreographing, a skill Millepied prefers in his dancers; and Morgan Lugo, a SUNY Purchase graduate who danced with Morphoses. Millepied also hopes to dance in Quintett this fall. Auditions for dancers who must “permanently reside in California” were held last November at L.A.’s Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.

His decision to retire from NYCB, via a simple press release, was natural: “I felt like I wasn’t giving it the necessary discipline,” he says about performing. “I wasn’t interested in feeling my capacity diminish.” Those who remembered the buoyant performer with the gleeful jump could detect a sense of disengagement on the stage as he shifted his concentration to choreography. He desired no fanfare or farewell program. “Dance for me didn’t start with NYCB and end with NYCB,” he says. “Oh, nooooo. I didn’t want the balloons.”

 

At right: The young Millepied in Robbins’ 2 & 3 Part Inventions, late ’90s. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

But all those years at NYCB did shape his choreography. Millepied credits the musical and physical finesse Stanley Williams demanded in his men’s classes at the School of American Ballet as a major influence: “That movement quality, that fluidity I have in my dances probably has a lot to do with the way he taught ballet.” Watching dancers like Peter Boal, Nikolaj Hübbe, and Ethan Stiefel at NYCB in the ’90s also had an impact on him. “To me Ethan was the dancer,” says Millepied. “He was so good at dancing his heart out to the music.”

And then there was Jerome Robbins, who acted as a mentor to Millepied, both in life and art. The naturalistic approach he gained from studying modern and African dance while growing up in France made him feel “super-connected to Jerry’s pieces,” he says. “Jerry did what he was interested in. That’s what I do. There’s no reason why I should only be making my little dances in the corner. If I feel also like getting behind a camera, then I’ll be making more films in the future.”

Another game changer was Muhly, his musical muse, whom he met when the composer was conducting the Philip Glass music for Millepied’s Amoveo at the Paris Opéra Ballet. After hearing Muhly’s compositions, says Millepied, “I was baffled by how such a young guy could have such a clear, deep voice. There was nothing superficial about it. His facility to re-orchestrate is incredible. He’s a dream to work with.” Millepied considers Two Hearts, created with Muhly for NYCB last May, the most mature work he has choreographed: “I felt I really showed a lot of restraint that I hadn’t shown before.”

For Two Hearts, Muhly drew on a European folk song that juxtaposes a lovely melody with gruesome lyrics about a bride’s murder. Their choreographic collaboration, which ends with a richly drawn pas de deux for NYCB stars Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle, started out as it almost always does—with a simple diagram “that can fit on a cocktail napkin,” says Muhly. “Benjamin’s movement is so respectful of the music, but he understands how he can work against it, so there is push and pull.”

Millepied, normally chatty, grows uncommonly mute when asked about Natalie Portman. “In the end, like any great relationship, one motivates and inspires the other,” he says with the monotone of someone weary of paparazzi. Of his son Aleph, born in June 2011, he describes the “crazy rush of emotions and love that feel like you’re opening a bottle of champagne.”

“A rich life molds you as an artist,” says Millepied, now 35. “I look to the things I am passionate about.”

Joseph Carman is a senior advising editor of Dance Magazine.

 

Where to see the new company: Walt Disney Concert Hall, L.A., CA, Sept. 22–23 • White Bird Dance, Portland, OR, Sept. 26 • Peak Performances, Montclair, NJ, Oct. 25–28 • Westobou Festival, Augusta, GA, Oct. 6 • Le Pin Galant, Merignac, France, Nov. 20–21

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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.

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Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.

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My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!

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