Los Angeles isn't known as the capital of dance, but Benjamin Millepied is asking Angelenos (and the world) to think again.
After years of debating, the French-born choreographer, director and former dancer has finally created LA Dance Project - a new dance company based solely in Los Angeles. The company will have its grand premiere on Sept. 22 at The Music Center downtown and will feature new work choreographed by Mr. Millepied, with music by Nico Muhly, set design by artist Christopher Wool and costumes by (yes!) Rodarte.
Millepied, an accomplished dancer, is best known within Hollywood for choreographing the riveting film "Black Swan," where he also met his future wife: Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman. The couple has a young son, a new life in LA and one exciting weekend ahead.
HuffPost LA recently had the chance to chat with Mr. Millepied by phone. He is articulate, passionate and assertive and isn't afraid to push back on those criticizing who he hired for his project.
HuffPost LA: You have been all around the world as a dancer. Do you think of LA as a creative city?
Benjamin Millepied: I do. What's so fascinating about this city is that you're constantly discovering things. The things that go on in the city … art-wise, there are a lot of interesting smaller musicians and artists who are doing really interesting things. You're always discovering a new neighborhood here -– and that's the same feeling in terms of people, too. There's a sense of freedom about Los Angeles and that's obviously different from New York. New York is very saturated in that sense. I think for our purposes, LA is wonderful.
Your piece "Moving Parts" premieres on September 22 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. How did you come to choose that space?
This is a collaboration with the Music Center and we were financed by them for this first program, so we have several spaces available to us. The Walt Disney Hall was definitely most suitable.
So your next project will not necessarily be there –- it's just for this first one?
Yeah, exactly. If we do another program with the Music Center, maybe it will be on the plaza outdoors or perhaps where they do all the plays.
You have received some criticism for not hiring LA-based dancers for this first project. Many of your dancers are from New York. I'm sure you hired the dancers that best fit your project. Period.
It's bizarre. Dance is a completely international form. There's no such thing as people being born and raised in one place and getting into a specific company. You couldn’t have the dance companies out there that we do that way –- they are all so international.
Do you think there's a certain type of dancer that finds him or herself working in LA versus working in New York?
More contemporary dance work and more visibility is in New York. It's a bigger platform. Kids go to Juilliard and all the big dance companies are there. [For this project] I hired people that aren't even born in New York actually [laughs]. It's like who cares? Enough already.
Obviously I am looking at people from LA. It's not like it's not open. I am looking at hiring dancers from here. I have hired six really excellent dancers for this piece and one of the most rewarding things so far has been sitting in the studio and watching them perform works from the other parts of the program other than mine. It's so exciting to know that these are the dancers that will be in this company.
Some say that LA has had a hard time sustaining internationally recognized dance companies in the past. Why do you think that is? What is your plan of attack? Is it as simple as just create good work?
I think it's the problem of LA a little bit. It's just a matter of concentrating on something specific. There are a lot of different things going on that are wonderful. There's the distance issue here and all kinds of things that prevent people from knowing about one specific event. I think it just hasn’t gotten enough momentum. LA hasn’t gotten that kind of momentum and awareness. The reputation is that it's a non-dance city but that isn't true.
There are people that I'm looking at now to work with who are LA-based, but were in New York before, and were in other places before that. Dancers are from all over and they go where the work is. There's definitely a commercial side to dance in Los Angeles. There are more commercial dancers here than in New York, but that’s not what I'm doing. I'm not hiring dancers for Beyonce's next video.
When was the first time you came to Los Angeles?
I first came to LA early 2000s I think, or even before that on tour with the New York City Ballet. I've been coming for a long time and I've always stayed extra time and lingered.
When did you move here officially?
A year ago.
What comes more naturally to you -- being a dancer or being a choreographer? Or do you not separate the two?
The dancing is in my past and it was already something that I took half-seriously the last few years of my career because I was already busy choreographing so much.
How do you relate to dance differently at 35 than you did, say, 10 years ago at 25?
I would just say that it's a different experience [laughs]. The truth is, I'm beyond dancing at this point. So I don't even really think about it. I've moved away from ballet because I was interested in other things and I had done it. And now going back in the studio and dancing … I don’t know. LA Dance Project is not about me dancing. It's not the point. My dancing is not really what I want to talk about.
What is the most exciting moment for a choreographer during a performance? What emotions do you experience as you watch a piece premiere?
What's wonderful is when everything comes together, when everything sort of hits in the way that you envisioned. What's most exciting is when you’ve commissioned a score and the music and the dance come together. It's not always simple. It usually happens long after the premiere.
In 2007 you were selected as a fellow for a local LA nonprofit called United States Artist under the dance discipline. Only 50 artists are chosen each year. What was that experience like?
It definitely is another element that brought me back to LA. It's when I first met Mark Bradford. It's been years of contemplating the idea of doing something here. I would discuss it at length with some of the people involved in the project now. LA excites me. It just does.
I had the experience of doing my own shows for years and all of this just came together very organically. I remember being here in 2006 and just dreaming up ideas of how to start something here. It has been a long time coming.
That's great to hear. Aside from the Disney Concert Hall, are there other venues in LA that you're excited about exploring?
It's endless. First of all there's the whole building at the Los Angeles Theater Center where we will perform in the winter. There's the palace and the Los Angeles Theater on Broadway, which are these old movie theaters that are just so fantastic. One of them is a Louis XIV-style theater. There are also incredible outdoor spaces in this city. There is the train station. LA that way is endlessly full of possibilities.
Some have asked why I wanted to do this and have pointed out that others have tried site-specific work. But I don't do things or not do things because people are doing or not doing them.
It's really about not limiting the things that we can do. Bring dance in a different way to the audience and go find the audience as well. There are so many crossovers today between the art world and dance and fashion. There are ways to really sort of fuse these elements of collaboration to draw nuances, and if a choreographer comes in and says "I want to dance in a train station," I don't want to limit that at all.