Artist Mark Bradford, left, and choreographer-dancer Benjamin Millepied… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)
Few people these days would go out of their way to say no to Benjamin Millepied, the celebrated choreographer-dancer who lives with actress Natalie Portman. But when Millepied asked artist Mark Bradford if he would appear in the dance portion of "Framework," their collaboration that debuts at MOCA Thursday, the rejection was swift and certain.
Before Millepied could even describe what he had in mind, Bradford shook his head and laughed: "Use my body? Oh, God, no," said the artist, who at 6 feet, 8 inches is a good head taller than Millepied. "The last thing I want is to be in something. The idea of it just sent shivers down my spine."
"OK, OK," Millepied said, laughing as well. "I just thought I'd throw it out there."
The two were talking, and at times chummily talking over each other, in Bradford's Leimert Park studio last week while finalizing details of their collaboration. A 30-minute site-specific dance featuring Millepied and Amanda Wells, "Framework" debuts on Thursday inside an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, using a pair of massive, collage-style paintings by Bradford as the point of focus.
"Framework" is the first offering by Millepied's new company, the L.A. Dance Project, which has its formal debut in September at Walt Disney Concert Hall and will start using its home base, the Los Angeles Theatre Center, in early 2013. "Framework" also will be the first time Millepied has performed since he ended his run as a principal with the New York City Ballet in January 2011.
"I've danced for a major ballet company for so long — dancing other people's work while I was making my own, that this year and a half was really a cleansing for me and my body," he said. "I needed to start with a clean slate."
He describes his Dance Project, which has funding from the Los Angeles Music Center, as deeply rooted in collaboration (his team includes composer Nico Muhly, art consultant Matthieu Humery, producer Charles Fabius and film producer Dimitri Chamblas) and committed to alternative venues.
"Making dance in a museum might sound conventional, but there are a lot of sites we're exploring in the city that are less conventional. I'm interested in bringing dance to different audiences," he said. "And the way I see it, this company couldn't exist anywhere but L.A. — the creative energy here is what gives the company its identity."
Bradford, who has made site-specific work himself (such as creating a massive ark of a sculpture for post-Katrina New Orleans), said: "I've always liked the idea of collaboration. But you never know what will come out of it. Maybe the relationship that comes out of it is the work."
The two met briefly five years ago through United States Artists, an L.A.-based nonprofit that has given grants to both artists. As a past recipient, Bradford was a member of the jury in 2007, the year Millepied was up for his grant, and remembers his first impression of the dancer's work.
"I found his work very powerful," the painter said. "The architecture of my own work is buried. That's probably why I'm attracted to his work, the sparseness and structure, what I don't have." Bradford described his own paintings, which often build up layers of decaying posters or other city signage, as "all accretion and secretion, all ghosts and shadows."
The two didn't start working together until late last year, after Millepied already had begun a conversation with MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch about possibly doing something with the museum. Deitch, whose interest in cultural crossover events is well-known, encouraged Millepied to think about a group show then in the works at MOCA, "The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol," and talk to Bradford, who has a prime place in it.
Last November, Millepied invited Bradford to his Los Angeles home for breakfast. "He went to the garden and picked some weeds and he cooked up these little eggs — I've never had such good eggs," said Bradford.
Bradford said the meeting was memorable, beyond the food, because of Millepied's expansive or fluid sense of what a collaboration between artists of different stripes could be. Often painters who collaborate with dancers are glorified stage-set designers. Bradford said this model held little interest.
"This is not Rauschenberg andMerce [Cunningham]; we have to update things a little," Bradford said.
At first they played with the idea of using MOCA visitors as the dancers in some way, with the help of surveillance cameras, but they chose to focus instead on the dialogue between dancing and painting.
The dialogue will come to life on Thursday in a few ways. Millepied has created a soundtrack to play in the background that features Bradford talking about his work. The dancers will make their way from the exhibition entrance toward Bradford's large paintings over the course of the night.