With a strikingly diverse evening including three area premieres, the L.A. Dance Project (LADP) made its headlining Philadelphia debut this week at the Annenberg Center. It’s a small company — nine dancers and two apprentices — but the program showcased their outsized talent and range.
Established in 2012, LADP draws on artistic collaborations to create and present original work. These goals showed in the pieces they chose: two works created for other companies — Ohan Naharin’s Yag (1996) and Benjamin Millepied’s Sarabande (2009) — with Justin Peck’s Murder Ballades (2013), a dance commissioned by LADP.
Audiences may know the three choreographers from their ties to film. LADP founder and artistic director Millepied starred in and created choreography for the movie Black Swan (2010). Peck appears in Ballet 422, the 2014 documentary that follows his creation of a new dance from first rehearsal to opening night. Naharin is the subject of Mr. Gaga (2015), a documentary about his work at Batsheva Dance Company developing the dance language he calls Gaga.
Music and movement
The playful Murder Ballades opened the performance. Its half-dozen movements featured fun and sometimes touching vignettes in which four dancers (David Adrian Freeland Jr., Kaitlyn Gilliland, Axel Ibot, and Francisco Mungamba) ran across the stage, twirled playfully, leapt with arms overhead, and put on and removed their shoes. In one movement, Freeland and Gilliland danced a duet full of lifts, graceful arabesques, and the female dancer repeatedly leaning on the male before they exited with shoes in hand.
The piece’s final movement featured faster music and a more frenetic pace. Dancers jumped and leaped, alternately throwing arms and legs in the air. At one point, men and women formed parallel lines which took turns advancing and retreating. Their high knees in these lines evoked a square dance. Single dancers spun out of line to briefly move alone, raising questions about control. Who is in charge: the dancer or the dance?
Murder Ballades was followed by Sarabande, a technically demanding piece for four male dancers (Aaron Carr, Nathan Makolandra, Ibot, and Mungamba), set to Bach excerpts. The first two movements were solos to flute music, the first up tempo with tour jetés, the second filled with pauses.
My interest waned as the second soloist knelt, stood, and reached for something unseen. It returned with a shift to violin music, a quicker tempo, and constantly changing movement of multiple dancers. First, they walked in unison with their hands on one another’s shoulders, then they scattered to the corners of the stage. Next, they turned and lifted one of the men as if he were a ballerina.
Sarabande finished with a dancer in a blue shirt executing elegant leaps and flawless batterie, and a triad of dancers energetically pulling and turning each other. The resulting cheers demonstrated the audience’s appreciation for such technical prowess.
Conversation and cookies
The program concluded with Yag, an unusual dance that draws on Gaga, Naharin’s experimental movement language. It also features dancers speaking (here, Daisy Jacobson, Patricia Zhou, Rachelle Rafailedes, Freeland, Carr, and Makolandra) and comes with a warning of brief nudity, both features I tend to dislike in dance. However, it was undoubtedly was the most daring piece of the evening.
Yag began with the sound of a heartbeat and the image of a glowing red door. The spoken narrative about familial relationships and a family’s love of dance juxtaposed shifting and sometimes discordant movement: dancers lying on the floor, crushing cookies with their feet, kicking frantically, whirling their arms, pulling and pushing one another. Together, these qualities suggested both the physical compulsion to dance and the complexity of family ties.
This display of the company’s artistic scope and skill took great strides towards establishing LADP as an important new force in contemporary dance.