L.A. Dance Project Debuts at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel

"Murder Ballads," Nathan Makolandra (beige pants) and Rachelle Rafailedes (light blue top). | Photo: Laurent Phillipe

One would never mistake the 6'2," lanky -- and extremely agile -- Nathan Makolandra for the late great Charlie Chaplin, whose movement skills were no less than his comedic ones. But, then again, the irony is not lost on Makolandra, a member of L.A. Dance Project, the troupe founded in 2012 by ballet's 'it' boy, Benjamin Millepied (he's also married to Oscar-winning actor, Natalie Portman), as the eight dancers take to the recently refurbished stage of the old United Artists Theatre at the Ace Hotel for three nights beginning February 20.

"As a dancer/choreographer, I always admire dancers much shorter than I am -- more compact, with completely different body structures," explains Makolandra, 23, who now considers himself an official Angeleno, having recently bought his first car. "Chaplin and I are total opposites," adds the Juilliard graduate, "but the passion is there and that's what connects us to this space. It's really less about our body types and more about being a part of L.A.'s dance history."

When Makolandra and colleagues spin, leap and cavort to the sounds of David Lang, The National's Bryce Dessner and Hiroaki Umeda, they will be opening a new chapter in L.A. history, for architecture, conservation and -- yes -- dance. This troupe, initially maligned for not hiring any dancers from Los Angeles, will officially take up residency -- with a fall season also on tap -- at what will be known as The Theatre at Ace Hotel.

Charlie Hodges (Rehearsal Director/Dancer) | Photo: Anne Menke
Charlie Hodges (Rehearsal Director/Dancer) | Photo: Anne Menke

The former is the 1,600-seat venue that is one of a handful of opulent showcase palaces that dot Broadway and were built exclusively to screen films. The latter is one of a chain of boutique hotels (others include those in New York, Palm Springs and Portland), a hotel that takes cultural leanings from co-founder Alex Calderwood, who died late last year in London at age 47.

The Ace in downtown Los Angeles opened its doors on January 6 and is anchored by the historic theater that occupies three floors of the 13-story building, with 182 guest rooms situated on top of the cinematic gem.

But above ground a little history is in order: The theater was built in 1927 by the United Artists film studio, co-founded by Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. It was this star quartet that wanted an edifice grander and more ornate than the others, with architect C. Howard Crane doing the honors and Pickford's love of European Gothic and Spanish castles figuring into the design.

This was, after all, before the crash and the great Depression, when seeing a movie was all about, well, seeing a movie. There was no texting, talking or tweeting, and even entering the theater from the foyer was deeply considered: Pickford, who made quite a few entrances in her day, made sure the vestibule could easily accommodate 1,500 folks, even as some craned their necks to gaze upon the 40-foot-high ceiling that dazzled with gilded mirrors and spires. Richly colored murals also depicted the legends of film's Golden Age, immortalized, so to speak, in mythic attire.

In short: This is Hollywood glamour squared.

But the intervening years were not exactly kind to the movie palace. Its doors shuttered in 1989, with a church housed there until 2010, replete with a "Jesus Saves" sign on the building's roof. This sign, which seems to have had a nomadic life of its own -- decorating various roofs since the 1930's -- is now perched atop the Ace, an iconic piece of art in its own right.

"Murder Ballads," Front row right, Morgan Lugo, Middle right,Aaron Carr,Back right,Nathan Makolandra, Front left, Rachelle Rafailedes, Middle left, Charlie Hodges, Back left, Julia Eichten
"Murder Ballads," Front row right, Morgan Lugo, Middle right,Aaron Carr,Back right,Nathan Makolandra, Front left, Rachelle Rafailedes, Middle left, Charlie Hodges, Back left, Julia Eichten

If the devil is in the details, the Ace has got them in spades: luxurious tapestries, the Haas Brothers' hand-drawn pencil doodles are sprinkled on the lobby walls, and a de rigueur rooftop bar that's generally crammed with impossibly beautiful model/actress/whatever types.

In addition to the dance residency, Ace is expected to have a potpourri of events and performances in keeping with its cultural branding. That said, will L.A. Dance Project, a company that tours internationally and pays its dancers 52 weeks a year (basically unheard of in a troupe this size), truly become part of L.A.'s crazy-quilt fabric and help the continued evolution of historic downtown?

Only time will tell. After all, Millepied, 36, who was a principal with New York City Ballet as well as the choreographer on Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan," assumes artistic directorship of the prestigious Paris Opera Ballet in November, a large machine with its own storied history, and some 6,000 miles from the City of Angels.

The news of that appointment, which was announced not long after the troupe's debut in September 2012 at Walt Disney Concert Hall (as part of Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center), seemed to draw concern. Of that concert, former L.A. Times dance critic Lewis Segal wrote: "As a choreographer, Benjamin Millepied arguably brings nothing new to the Southern California dance scene beyond the scale of his ambitions. But as a curator he's made his L.A. Dance Project a unique cultural resource with an inaugural performance dominated by the kind of daring, world-class contemporary revivals that our home-grown companies lack the will or budget to attempt."

"Murder Ballads," Morgan Lugo and Julia Eichten | Photo: Laurent Phillipe
"Murder Ballads," Morgan Lugo and Julia Eichten | Photo: Laurent Phillipe

The troupe, an artist collective with an annual operating budget between $1.7 and $2 million, works with all disciplines, not just dance. Charles Fabius, co-founding producer with Millepied, likens it to Diaghilev's original Ballets Russes, where choreographers, composers, artists, designers and writers, including Jean Cocteau, came together to create art from 1909-1929. Even Coco Chanel designed costumes, notably for Bronislava Nijinska's 1924 "Le Train Bleu," bathing attire that might easily be coveted on today's beaches.

Fabius acknowledges that the troupe was little seen locally in 2013, although it was part of The Industry's sold-out headphone opera, "Invisible Cities," at Union Station last fall. Nevertheless, he believes the time is right to be more Angeleno-centric.

Talking by phone from New York, Fabius, born in the Netherlands, knows his way around the theater, be it an opera, concert or dance stage. In the 1990's he ran the Paris-based artist management agency Opera et Concert and, after moving to Manhattan in 2001, Fabius became artistic and executive director of the Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation. He is also consulting producer for Performing Arts programs at New York's Guggenheim Museum.

"Reflections," Morgan Lugo, Julia Eichten, Amanda Wells, Nathan Makolandra, Charlie Hodges
"Reflections," Morgan Lugo, Julia Eichten, Amanda Wells, Nathan Makolandra, Charlie Hodges

"Ben is very, very committed to L.A. and L.A. Dance Project," insists Fabius. "There is no way for him to give it up. From the beginning when he got the offer, it has been clear that he would do both. [Former City Ballet principal] Sébastien Marcovici is coming in as our ballet master and he'll be there on a day-to-day basis. But Millepied will continue to be involved to oversee programming and plans."

Fabius further defends Millepied as the ultimate multi-tasker. "I come from opera and music and there are several examples of this. Gustavo Dudamel, Plácido Domingo and Valery Gergiev -- they all have two opera houses or orchestras. Some artists thrive on multi-tasking. For some mysterious reason they won't let a choreographer do the same thing."

Then there's the 'carpetbagger' issue, as none of the original dancers were from L.A., creating somewhat of a firestorm when the company was first announced. "All the dancers live full time in L.A., and," adds Fabius, "most of the work -- not all -- is created, work-shopped and rehearsed in L.A. Then it's taken on the road. That's why it's so important we have this partnership with Ace, because we were looking for a venue to showcase and maybe premiere work with L.A.D.P."

Two of the three dances on the Ace bill are U.S. premieres: Millepied's 2013 "Reflections," with music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang and visuals by L.A. resident, Barbara Kruger; and Justin Peck's "Murder Ballads," with Dessner's score for eighth blackbird (heard on tape), and visuals by Sterling Ruby, another L.A. artist. These works will be paired with a sneak-peek of Umeda's "Peripheral Stream," before it premieres in Paris next month.

"Reflections," Morgan Lugo and Julia Eichten | Photo: Laurent Phillipe
"Reflections," Morgan Lugo and Julia Eichten | Photo: Laurent Phillipe

Umeda, 36, has been mostly a solo artist, living and working in Tokyo. He came to dance late, at age 20, before founding his own company, S20. Not the first to use technology to reconfigure the body (the late Alwin Nikolais bathed his performers in lighting, fabric and other props, for example), the Guardian's Judith Mackrell wrote, "Such projects appear quaintly old school compared to Hiroaki Umeda, who immerses himself in such a perfect storm of light, video and sound that his body rarely looks human."

Observing four L.A.D.P. dancers rehearsing Umeda's new work in the troupe's fourth floor studio, a few blocks from the Ace at the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Spring Street, the dancers are extremely committed. Umeda, meanwhile, counts beats in his heavily accented English, his electronic score ("Composed," he said, "on an Apple computer -- American technique"), ranging from low level static to noise bursts capable of short-circuiting synapses.

Dancers Makolandra, Morgan Lugo, Rachelle Rafailedes and newest member, McKenna Birmingham watch playbacks of themselves on iPhone videos, courtesy of rehearsal director/dancer Charlie Hodges. Each is doing a series of solos that range from slo-mo walking to slithering lunges and swooping backward bends. There are also one-armed cartwheels and, for the men, Nijinsky-like leaps.

Julia Eichten, who suffered a pulled oblique muscle but will be performing come concert time, watches from the side, also counting time to Umeda's soundtrack. For those wanting any kind of standard issue pas de deux, trios, lifts or couplings -- of any gender -- that's just not gonna happen!

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Umeda beseeches his charges, "Can you make it more extreme?"

The dancers respond by accentuating wavy arms, their torsos also fluid, the bodies then moving from solid held leg positions to jerky, robotic stances. Makolandra, as if a gargantuan corkscrew on a spiral descent (not unlike the 15-year old Russian skater, Yulia Lipnitskaya's final Ferrari-like spin), could also be a marionette being tugged by invisible strings.

The Japanese choreographer, sporting hip glasses and shaved-head, is pleased. "My style," he explains during a break, "is very abstract, because I don't want to put any meaning or story in my piece. It is more for the experience, not for watching a story."
"Peripheral" will eventually be about 25 minutes, with, says Umeda, "a lot of videos on screens and on the floor. I focus on the visual illusion where you can see abstract lines. And the stream of the movement."

The dancers, unused to Umeda's movement vocabulary, had to reboot their way of working.

Says Umeda: "In the rehearsal we did a lot of exercise for how to control the gravity center of the body, and how to transmit the forces from the gravity center, so this makes the stream of the movement. It's a very different technique from what they usually do. It's challenging, but I'm impressed. They learn so quickly."

"Reflections," Morgan Lugo and Julia Eichten | Photo: Laurent Phillipe
"Reflections," Morgan Lugo and Julia Eichten | Photo: Laurent Phillipe

Finally, Umeda says he doesn't focus on dance technique, "but a system of movement of the body. My interest is how to create the space with the movement, but not the dance. Also," he adds, "for me the dance can be a visual art, because if you don't have light, you can't see the dance, so I have to also choreograph lighting and sound together."

Will L.A. Dance Project, whose other members include Anthony Bryant and Aaron Carr, help break through the Marley ceiling and allow more dance to flourish in Los Angeles? The jury is still out on that, but Fabius is decidedly thrilled with the Ace collaboration.

"We needed a theatrical environment," the Dutchman points out. "We have our offices and studio downtown, and from the beginning, if one of those beautiful old theaters became available so we could perform there, this is what we were hoping. Then out of the blue Ace announced they were going to build a hotel and a theater. It's an incredible coincidence. For us, it's a dream come true."


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