LA Dance Project, Maison de la Danse, Lyon – review

Benjamin Millepied is a busy man. As he gets one last New York creation ready ahead of his move to the Paris Opera Ballet as artistic director next year, the small company he founded in 2012, LA Dance Project, has this week been left to fend for itself in Lyon. Still, early forays into Forsythe and Cunningham have shown that its seven excellent dancers can handle anything and, while uneven, the two world premieres presented at the Maison de la Danse showed the kind of programming chops Millepied will need in Paris.

The evening started with 26-year-old Justin Peck’s first European creation. Murder Ballads comes on the heels of the success of his first works for New York City Ballet, and Peck benefits from a commissioned score by The National guitarist Bryce Dessner, a variation on old American folk songs in which danger lurks under the surface. But there’s nothing murderous about Peck’s choreography; his domino-like ensemble work for six dancers is steeped in youthful energy.

Playful touches give personality to his ballads throughout: the curtain opens on six pairs of abandoned tennis shoes, soon reclaimed by their owners. Before one pas de deux, the dancers sit on the floor side by side, exchanging coy glances as they untie their laces. There is promise and skill there, but Peck is still unaccustomed to working with non-ballet dancers. Murder Ballads is too neat; you know no harm will come to such a chic and sporty gang.

Some of that playfulness carried over to the other world premiere on the programme, Emanuel Gat’s Morgan’s Last Chug. This convincing 20-minute piece, all fragmented group sequences, is typical of the Israeli choreographer’s recent work. The dancers scatter and find each other in space like a flock of birds, while the layered score brings together Bach, Purcell and Beckett, with an excerpt from Krapp’s Last Tape.

Detachment is the default position in Gat’s works, but the versatile LA dancers imbue his stop-start phrases with humanity. As Charlie Hodges (prodigious in all three works) whizzes through a combination and bounces back down to one knee, chin in palm, he gives the group a faint, amused smile, as if acknowledging our desire to see more. Elsewhere, a woman freezes as others continue the sequence she has started, briefly looking over her shoulder – only cautiously to dance the rest when no one is looking.

The evening also featured one of Millepied’s own works, Reflections, created earlier this year in Paris. In a display of staggering self-confidence, the programme informs us that it is the first part of a planned trilogy entitled Gems and sponsored by Van Cleef & Arpels, also the benefactor behind the most famous triptych in ballet, George Balanchine’s 1967 Jewels.

Balanchine spun enduring dance metaphors out of the collaboration, but you’d be hard pressed to find even the vaguest allusion to jewellery in Reflections. Instead, oversized white letters suggest someone (we?) “Stay” or “Go” and “Think of me thinking of you” as six dancers frolic blandly to a score by David Lang. The result is workmanlike but rarely touches the heart.

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