Benjamin Millepied's L.A. Dance Project Gala Performance Wows City Ballet Fans

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Saturday's gala performance at the Theatre at Ace Hotel drew the choreographer's wife, Natalie Portman, and figures from Frank Gehry and Barbara Kruger to FKA Twigs and Robert Pattinson.

“No hope.” Those were the two simple, damning words said to the Los Angeles Times by George Balanchine in 1973 when he was asked if there was any hope for ballet to succeed in Los Angeles.

Now, hope.

Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project has thrown down the slipper in declaring the city’s standing in the ballet world. Through four exquisite pieces, Millepied and his troupe wowed audiences at the Ace Hotel during a two-night run on Friday and Saturday.

In the hours leading up to Saturday's performance, Millepied made the rounds at one of his famously regal gala dinners, an impressive affair underneath the cathedral-like architecture of the Ace Theatre’s lobby. Stars studded the tables — singer FKA Twigs and her beau Robert Pattinson were in attendance at a table with Natalie Portman, Millepied’s wife and the Jackie star who is expecting their second child. Silence executive producer Lawrence Bender mingled nearby.

The art world came out in force as well, with attendees including curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, architect Frank Gehry, gallerists Shaun Regen and Paul Schimmel and artists Alex Israel, Doug Aitken and Barbara Kruger.

In remarks at the dinner, Millepied, fresh from an acrimonious two-year stint at the Paris Opera Ballet, reiterated his dedication to L.A.’s performing arts scene. “Dance is a significant art form, and a universal one, that has the ability to positively impact our communities,” he said, while also announcing a 2017 project at the Donald Judd Foundation in Marfa as well as shouting out his main benefactors Van Cleef & Arpels, and their new supporters, L.A.-based lifestyle brand Chrome Hearts. (A rep for the Chinati Foundation contacted The Hollywood Reporter on Dec. 14, saying that the piece Millepied announced will be hosted at the Chinati Foundation rather than the Judd Foundation.)

Millepied then made the rounds, stopping by for a chat at each table. “He is fishing for gossip,” his assistant Fanny warned of this reporter as Millepied hovered over my table. She was joking, of course, but Millepied did confirm to The Hollywood Reporter that this would be his final performance as a dancer. “I think you have to sort of leave everything else and do nothing but dance,” he explained. “And it's harder and harder as you get older. While I will enjoy tonight and I enjoyed last night, it’s not where my heart is at and you can’t do everything either. Creating, choreographing and building this company is what I’m devoted to at the moment.”

THR also learned that it’s best not to eat four hours before a performance in order to fit into the tight ballet costuming — Millepied and Portman had dined at Sqirl for lunch and that was plenty — and that this performance was the only one that Millepied had ever seemed nervous about, perhaps owing to it being his last.

The rest of the guests were in high spirits about Millepied’s return to Los Angeles. Dinner was deliciously arranged by Chef Armand Arnal from La Chassagnette, a small restaurant on a farm in Arles, France, owned by Maja Hoffman, who runs the LUMA Foundation (where the L.A. Dance Project will travel to in 2017). Guests dined on sea scallop ceviche, red rice pilaf made from Camarugue rice and organic farm-raised chicken strips, while sipping on Dom Perignon.

“We’re thrilled to have Benjamin back,” said Catharine Soros, who sits on the board of the L.A. Dance Project. “He is a big part of bringing top-notch dancers, visual artists and musicians together. We really want Los Angeles Dance Project to be a permanent addition to the L.A. arts landscape. Benjamin is an incredible convener of many, many talented people.”

Added Paul Schimmel of Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel: “There are any number of performing arts organizations that want to work with artists, and this is the only one that that initiative came directly from the artistic director, Benjamin.” THR asked Schimmel, who has been a member of the arts community in Los Angeles for over 30 years, the last time he saw ballet in L.A.

“Never!” he exclaimed, listing off ballets he’d seen elsewhere. “But never here. I hope this is just a start.”

Richard Stark from Chrome Hearts simply said, “Benjamin’s awesome.”

The show exceeded even this audience’s heightened expectations, brilliantly opening with Roy Assaf’s remarkable “II Acts for the Blind,” commissioned by the L.A. Dance Project in 2014 and premiered at the Biennale de Lyon that year. At first, the performance is straightforward: Eight dancers in simple nude-colored outfits silently mime vignettes. But then the piece blooms to life and becomes a deconstructivist masterpiece — a speed-talking narrator grabs the attention of the audience as dancers quickly change their wardrobes into colorful costumes. They then proceed to retrace their original steps, now with a running narrative.

The dancer doing what looked like strength exercises while other dancers shimmied by him becomes a strapping lad auctioned off for a million dollars to a chorus of bidders; a dancer performing angular leg movements while on his back becomes Morgan Lugo (the real dancers’ names are used), a “long-distance imaginary vertical cyclist” with a catchphrase: “It’s all about winning”; and the piece reveals itself to be about Los Angeles’s socioeconomic landscape. The piece is a perfectly wry comment on how one reads dance, and a satire on the dogmatic nature of narrative dance.

The following dance, “After the Rain,” is a work by renowned British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon that presents itself as a delicate pas de deux between dancers Carla Korbes and Batkhurel Bold — but that is a deception. There is strength in the emotion that underlies the prettiness, like a passionate reconciliation. Wheeldon’s piece has no shortage of fluid, powerful passages that evoke the lyricism and struggle of love.

“Homecoming,” which premiered Thursday, was perhaps the most talked about piece leading up to the performances, as it marks Millepied’s final time taking the stage as a dancer. Buoyed by two Rufus Wainwright compositions (Wainwright joined the dancers onstage to play the pieces as well), the dance pitted Millepied against Janie Taylor, onetime New York City Ballet soloist.

Millepied was unable to contain himself onstage, visibly enjoying the moment while pulling off difficult spinning leaps. An unplanned smile betrayed him during a particularly clever combination with Taylor. He left the stage with a bittersweet expression — an unusual sentiment for a ballet audience, and one that was perhaps the emotional peak of the evening.

But it was the finale, an ensemble piece by Millepied, called “On the Other Side,” that proved L.A. can be confident in the L.A. Dance Project’s ability to provide world-class ballet. In front of a towering abstract backdrop by L.A. painter Mark Bradford (who will represent the U.S. at this year’s Venice Biennale) — looking something like a Google Maps view of Los Angeles done with the palette of Van Gogh’s wheat fields — the six dancers, each in different colored outfits, lifted one another up and melted into one another like crayons in the sun.

A 43-minute piece set to several skittering Philip Glass etudes played by Grammy-nominated pianist Richard Valitutto, “On the Other Side” shows off Millepied’s bravura — his ability to bring daring movements and unconventional pairings onto the stage left the audience breathless and standing in ovation.

Chris Gardner contributed to this article.

Dec. 14, 2016 Update: This article has been corrected to include information about Benjamin Millepied's upcoming project at the Chinati Foundation.

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