By Mary Hierholzer
The L.A. Dance Project performed an inspired triple-bill show last Friday as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston, opening their very first weekend run in Boston. The city received them well; guests filling roughly three-quarters of the intimate Shubert Theater warmly applauded, whooped and even gave the budding company a standing ovation at the end of the night.
The L.A. Dance Project is growing in fame since its founding in 2012, the brainchild of the internationally-acclaimed French choreographer and former New York City Ballet principal, Benjamin Millepied, working in collaboration with founding producer Charles Fabius, two composers and an art consultant. In its few years of existence, the L.A. Project has enjoyed a glittery repertory with works by choreographers including Justin Peck, William Forsythe and Mr. Millepied, himself. The pieces are performed by a capable company of only 10 dancers (seven of whom hail from Juilliard School).
The dancing was extremely competent and a pleasure to watch, but nothing overly impressive. Two dancers, Morgan Lugo and Rachelle Rafailedes, consistently stood out during the performance with compelling physicality and excellent dancing. Others were very good too, but here and there, a dancer would fall behind on the counts, and some of the partnering seemed slightly out of their depth.
These errors, though, were forgivable, in light of the dancers’ ability to project the emotional depth of these pieces. The three ballets managed to tell interesting and compelling stories that made sense and evoked emotion without needing program descriptions (though the write-ups were still informative and necessary to grasp the full picture). In short, these ballets went somewhere.
Harbor Me, a piece by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, set the tone for the night with a social commentary playing to the dancers’ strengths. It’s a ballet for three dancers—on Friday it was a male trio of Aaron Carr, Mr. Lugo and Robbie Moore—and interestingly, Sunday’s cast was three women. Gender does not matter for this piece, which explores the dynamic of any marginalized individual seeking refuge. This human experience was expressed creatively, and the program suggests viewing the three dancers as fire, water and air: “One influences, transforms or destroys the next as they move.” It would be fascinating to now watch three women perform the piece, to observe how their physicality may or may not communicate the story differently.
Mr. Carr, Mr. Lugo and Mr. Moore impressed with emotion and technical ability; their superb strength and control created an illusion of manipulated gravity, playing with momentum and kinetic energy. The choreography was altogether engaging, despite bordering on cliché at times. The mostly shirtless men in Harbor Me received an enthusiastic response, particularly from the adolescent girls in the crowd.
The second piece of the night was Justin Peck’s Murder Ballades. A musical reflection of American Murder Ballades, highlighted by an exploration of the role of violence in the United States, Mr. Peck’s ballet looms in the overwhelming shadow of an abstract American flag evoking images of splattered blood.
It was a narrative freshly told, true to Peck’s fresh storytelling style. Each dancer seemed to reckon with inner turmoil, but never got too far into the personal reflection when interrupted by corps’ American folk dancing. A constant underlying note of tension partnered with the flag and creatively choreographed interactions to emote an unsettling vibe of anticipation. This aptly captured the attitudes surrounding the streaks of mass shootings that took place in America around the time of this ballet’s conception.
It was a much more compelling ballet than the final piece of the night, Mr. Millepied’s On the Other Side. With only the title to go by, I was lost. The narrative, choreography, design and execution lacked appeal. Mr. Millepied indicated importance, hinting at meaning with the steps, but the ballet rarely communicated a coherent idea.
There were a few good bits of dancing here and there, but overall, this was the dancers’ weakest performance of the night. Their reservation meant that they often left a lift right as soon as it was reached, and they didn’t quite fulfill the steps’ potential. I’m not sure whether this was due to an inability to master the choreography, exhaustion or mere timidity. But the costumes didn’t help their case; one dancer’s matronly blue dress, specifically, didn’t do her any favors, compromising the illusion of fluidity. The dancers not wearing dresses looked as though their medical scrubs shrunk and bled in the dryer.
The L.A. Dance Project isn’t slated for the Celebrity Series of Boston next season, but I’d like to see them back in Boston soon, nonetheless; they piqued my interest, and I am curious to see more of their skills and impressive repertoire.
For more information about performances in the Celebrity Series of Boston, visit their webpage.