Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; October 2, 2013       

Jessica Wilson       

LA Dance Project in Justin peck's 'Murder Ballads' with Julia Eichten at the front. Photo © Laurent Philippe

LA Dance Project in Justin Peck’s ‘Murder Ballads’ with Julia Eichten at the front.
Photo © Laurent Philippe

Making their first, and given Artistic Director Benjamin Millepied’s forthcoming appointment in Paris, maybe their only London visit, this LA Dance Project programme was something of disappointment. It was always watchable, but the works rather looked like they all came out of the same drawer, and if this not-for-profit arts collective really aims to “break the circle of incurious dance-making,” it has a way to go.On the expansive Sadler’s Wells stage, Julia Eichten ate up the space in her impressive extensions and commitment to the intention behind Justin Peck’s “Murder Ballads”.

The rest of the piece was less memorable. Bryce Dessner’s forgettable score is reminiscent of the music for the popular UK television drama “Midsomer Murders”. Peck says he took his inspiration from the original lyrics, but since they are not heard, we have to take his word for it. Whatever, the music has a blasé feel; although maybe that was a conscious decision on Peck’s part considering the subject matter. The choreography also dispelled many of the expectations of the much touted ensemble, and failed to promote the exciting group of dancers sufficiently.“Murder Ballads” doesn’t really deal with the recollection of murder through song and dance as the title suggests. Instead, Peck largely presents the polar opposite: the vitality of life through movement. Of course, you can argue that makes a sort of sense, given that the mind can only know death through life (as its opposite) and vice versa, neither being able to exist without the other. There were pauses and purposeful hesitations that sort of suggested the process of using song to recall murder details. When done well, it was effective, although the required intent was not displayed by all.

Despite much aesthetically pleasing and technically perfect movement, the Peck’s choreography is prevented from developing by ‘safe’ classical ballet choreographic choices. Perhaps that’s not surprising given his and Millepied’s backgrounds, but it could have been so much more. A playful duet between Rachelle Rafailedes and Nathan Makolandra, for example, was overly ‘picture-perfect’ and did not appear to push the dynamic quality past any comfortable limits. The four dancers joining them were a little more direct in their dance, their performance rather more fulfilling and liberating, with more use of fully extended limbs, breath, and with a light in the eyes. All told, “Murder Ballads” is watchable but not overly exciting.

LA Dance Project in Benjamin Millepied's 'Reflections' Photo © Laurent Philippe

LA Dance Project in Benjamin Millepied’s ‘Reflections’
Photo © Laurent Philippe

In Millepied’s “Reflections”, the live score enhanced better the mood of the dance, which displayed great humanity. The work is graceful and poignant, the dancers always so very aware of each other even in the slightest of brushes. This helped create a narrative strand throughout the individual sections of the piece, although the precise story was ambiguous. The movement was smooth and lyrical in quality, and full of breath. A sense of longing was conveyed throughout, despite the dancers being in such close physical proximity, perhaps emanating the same loneliness one can feel in a crowd of people.

There was much tenderness and connection between the dancers. Charlie Hodges stood out in his strength and control, nimble footwork, and overt awareness and acknowledgement of the audience. The dancers’ strong classical background was evident, although the movement and its quality veered away from the strict ballet vocabulary and relied more on the emotion behind it.

But it was too long. Although “Reflections” was touching, it could have conveyed its message in half the time. There was a notable loss of choreographic intention towards the end of the piece. Still, the dancers excelled and the choreography, with that extra dose of emotion, held the audience notably more than did Peck’s.

The best was saved to last: William Forsythe’s “Quintett.” Speedy, technically precise, well-rehearsed dance was demonstrated by all in a work that moved further away from the out and out classical ballet style.

The work is somewhat reminiscent of some by the now disbanded Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Forsythe’s intelligent approach to the construction of movement was easy to spot. The many separate elements of the piece were distinctly highlighted and the movement appeared to have an overall, genuine narrative intention. The dance had distinct aesthetic qualities that were rather more evident than the previous works. I also got the impression the dancers were actually enjoying their performances.

The subtle acknowledgement of loss, hope and joy accumulated in Forsythe’s 1993 love letter to his dying wife was evident throughout. Seamless, heartfelt movement was fluid until the end. The ensemble seemed well suited to Forsythe’s style, with strong legs and crisp lines. The choreography contrasts with the sweet tones of Gavin Bryer’s score and its lyrics, while at other times complements well more melancholic interludes. The expansive movement vocabulary was epitomised again by Eichten. She showed attack throughout, yet was also able to genuinely acknowledge the other dancers through small nuances and the expressiveness of her face. She and Hodges were a complete pleasure to watch. Their performance, every lift, support and moment of contact, was filled expression and limitless reach.