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Swiss dance troupe's feet are planted in the contemporary

Despite its title, Ballet du Grande Theatre de Geneve has rejected the pointe tradition. For its L.A. visit, the company will perform works by 'Black Swan' choreographer Benjamin Millepied.

April 08, 2012|By Diane Haithman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Philippe Cohen, artistic director of the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève.
Philippe Cohen, artistic director of the Ballet du Grand Théâtre… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

What, no pointe shoes?

Two things lead you to expect pointe shoes from Ballet du Grande Théâtre de Genève when the company arrives at the Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for performances next weekend. The first is the name — it's called ballet, right? Sure, the women of today's ballet companies take off the boxy satin footwear sometimes for contemporary work, but ballet in a company moniker still implies that pointe shoes rule.

The second is the company's Los Angeles program, which includes three works by French dancer-choreographer Benjamin Millepied, widely known as choreographer for the 2010 movie "Black Swan" — featuring his take on that very pointe-intensive classical ballet "Swan Lake." (For local dance fans, the former New York City Ballet principal and romantic partner of "Black Swan" star Natalie Portman is perhaps equally well known as the Music Center's choice to found and direct a new dance collective, L.A. Dance Project).

But shelve those expectations for the West Coast debut of the Swiss company. On a recent Los Angeles visit, ballet director Philippe Cohen explained that the 22-member troupe never wears pointe shoes. "Non, non, non!," he exclaimed, liberally mixing French phrases with impeccable English. And besides rejecting pointe-shoe tradition, Cohen said, this contemporary company stands out from the pack by presenting exclusively new work.

On the L.A. program are three North American premieres: "Amoveo," created in 2006 for Paris Opera Ballet and set to excerpts from the Philip Glass opera "Einstein on the Beach," and two re-imaginings of older works originally by Michel Fokine for the Ballets Russes: "Les Sylphides" and "Spectre de la Rose." Longtime collaborator Paul Cox designed the sets, including a slowly moving painting that serves as the backdrop for "Amoveo."

"I am not a choreographer," said Cohen, 60, who came to his post about a decade ago from a position as director of choreographical studies at Le Conservatoire National Supérieur de Lyon in France. Since he could not put his own choreographic stamp on his company, Cohen thought: "What can I bring to this company? New repertory with new pieces that give the chance to the young choreographers. I'm a gambler. I like to play and take risks."

Cohen took one of those risks on Millepied, 34, who became a student at the Lyon conservatory at age 13. In 2005, he invited Millepied, by this time a noted dancer but an inexperienced choreographer, to create a full-length "Nutcracker" for the Geneva-based company. Millepied's updated take on the Christmas staple was a hit.

"I had done very little work for professional companies, and there he was commissioning a full-length, million-dollar ballet for me," Millepied said with a chuckle. "It was kind of insane on his part."

The decision to bring Millepied back to Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève predates both the release of "Black Swan" and the Music Center's decision to commission Millepied to found a new contemporary dance company. And, says Renae Williams Niles, Music Center director of dance presentations, the center had been angling to have the company come there before the movie as well. Seeing Millepied's "Nutcracker" turned her on to the company. "They are very much this kind of undiscovered European jewel," she said.

(As an aside, Millepied says that L.A. Dance Project will commission new work but not exclusively like the Geneva troupe. "In a time when dance is struggling, and so many modern dance companies have shut down, it's important to revive interesting works that are very rarely seen," he said. So far, he has hired six dancers and will dance himself).

Has there been a "Black Swan" effect on the Geneva company because of its association with the choreographer? Millepied isn't sure. "I don't know if there are people that really come because the only thing they know is 'Black Swan,' but if they do, I think they should be intrigued by what they see on the program," he said. "'Black Swan' reminded everybody of the power the movies and the media can have in actually bringing culture to the people."

"It was kind of funny, the response the ballet world had to 'Black Swan,'" Millepied added. "Some people said it was not the ballet world; it's not how it is. But you know, almost every company in the world did 'Swan Lake' the following season. Suddenly, 'Swan Lake' became 'The Nutcracker' and filled the gaps in their budgets."

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