L.A. Dance Project Innovates and Invigorates

As the Managing Director of L.A.Dance Project, James Fayette has helped craft the remarkable achievements of this innovative and invigorating dance company. Formerly a principal dancer with New York City Ballet and a dancers’ union delegate and later an employment contract negotiator, Fayette channels his complex understanding of ballet companies to help LADP and its Artistic Director, Benjamin Millepied, to redefine the image of a contemporary ballet company and its audience. LADP will be holding its annual gala on December 9 and 10 at L.A.’s Ace Hotel, featuring the world premiere of a new piece choreographed (and performed!) by Benjamin Millepied. The World Dances spoke with Fayette about LADP, what it takes to be a dancer in the company, advice for aspiring dancers, and more.

What do you think is so special about the Los Angeles dance scene now and LADP’s role in it? 

The conditions in Los Angeles now are so ripe for excellent art. There’s always been significant and great dance in Los Angeles. But when you compared New York City to Los Angeles as the number one and two cities in America, the disparity between the dance levels was extreme. What happened was that people tried to import the New York model to L.A. But for reasons that I think are just cultural to Los Angeles, that wasn’t sustainable. I think that’s sort of the history of why things haven’t worked as well in the past. People were trying to take an inappropriate model and apply it in L.A. We needed something new that made sense for this city, which is what I think we’re doing now.

Something that’s really nice about L.A. is there’s this desire to give people the opportunity to experiment and fail. And Angelenos really respect that—that you’re trying to do something new. There’s a sense of pride about being out here, too. If you try to create something in Los Angeles, you try to do something different, access the audience in different ways, bring in a sense of collaboration. That’s where I think LADP and Benjamin Millepied’s vision have really keyed into the culture here. Benjamin didn’t try to create a miniature New York City Ballet; he set out to make a new, contemporary dance company with a mission of collaboration.  We bring in spectacular visual artists for our scenery, different composers, fashion designers for our costumes, and interesting and extremely various choreographers. Benjamin tries to find good partnerships and kinds of artists to work with these choreographers in order to bring in these different elements and make sure we’re following the vision of collaboration. It’s a much more immersive environment that we create.

You mentioned accessing audiences in new ways. How does LADP do this? 

By collaborating with and bringing in these different artists, we can also reach people from different audiences. For example, our gala will include the world premiere of a new piece, Homecoming, to the music of Rufus Wainwright, which Rufus will accompany live. There are probably going to be some people who see this who might not have seen live dance before but are fans of the music and curious to see what contemporary ballet set to Wainwright’s music is like.

Also, L.A. has so many great venues that tend to attract different kinds of crowds. You can perform in Beverly Hills for a Beverly Hills audience. We also perform in downtown L.A. at the Ace Theater. You experience the vibe immediately. It’s very young and hip, cutting edge in terms of taste. We're the only dance company that performs there, so we’re tapping into the audience that’s built into that partnership. The average age in that audience in well below 45 years old, and a lot of them are experiencing dance for the first time. We also perform in nontraditional spaces, such as architecturally significant spaces or museums. We go to unique spaces and tailor pieces to the audiences and locations of each space. We kind of feel like we’re weaving ourselves into the fabric of L.A. and trying to do this internationally as well.

Millepied recently launched a new web platform, Artform.co, which furthers the collaborative vision. Can you please tell us about that?

Artform was born out of frustration. If you’re an artist, you use social networking or your website to try to let people know about your work and find other artists. Social networking is limiting in terms of file size and resolution if you want to show your portfolio at the highest possible level. And on the other hand, building your own website can be costly and challenging, and then it just sort of sits on the web and doesn’t work much for you. Benjamin wanted to combine the two to create a really rich platform that responds to artists’ needs to present their work and also connects people easily to start collaborations. The platform allows consumers or producers of art to find artists as well. It’s a way to be a more active part of the business and artistic communities and to share that all in an accessible way.

You’re not only the Managing Director at LADP but also the Associate Director of the Colburn Dance Academy. What in your career prepared you to be able to run these two important dance institutions?

First of all, being a principal dancer at New York City Ballet. You’re thrown into ballets constantly. You might get three days to prepare for a work you’ll have to go out and perform for thousands of people. That dynamic environment prepared me to be able to think on my feet and to be ready for anything. Then I transitioned into union negotiations. I was the union delegate at NYCB and was recruited to negotiate employment contracts for opera and dance companies. Negotiations are sort of like a performance in that you’re thrown lots of curve balls and you have to think nimbly. There was always a lot going on. The great thing about being around NYCB is that you’re just around excellence all the time—not only the dancers but the administration as well, how they present and support the company. I witnessed that for 15 years and took it in.  Working in the union was a very different environment, but I got to know almost every major dance company. I would meet with their management, discuss how they were doing things, and discuss how they could improve the employment conditions of their dancers. It was a huge education to see how other organizations functioned.

How has Millepied’s tenure with and departure from Paris Opera Ballet impacted LADP?

It’s funny—even though these huge arcs and changes have been going on with Benjamin and his career, the company has been really staying on path. He and I came from NYCB, where the Artistic Director was very much the Man in Charge. You did what he said and you had to try to find your artistry amongst the structure and history of the organization and choreography. Benjamin wanted to create an organization where you have to find your own path. We give you a lot more freedom to find yourself as an artist. He was involved with every artistic aspect of the company, even when he was at Paris Opera, but he gave everyone a lot of breadth to find their own ways.  We all bring something good to the table, and we have dancers who are really good on their own and under the excellent guidance of Carla Korbës, who is now our Rehearsal Director and Associate Artistic Director. So the company is kind of fueled by Benjamin, but he gives us the space and ability to work somewhat autonomously.

What’s in the future for LADP?

We want to expand the company eventually. We don’t want to become a huge company, but we do want to be able to bring in more dancers. Next year, we have a ton of touring to really dynamic places.  We like how we’re doing it, so we’ll be doing more of the same, hopefully just better and bigger.

As the company expands, are there plans to draw dancers from the Colburn Dance Academy?

Absolutely. The company and the school really co-exist. As they both expand, we can see Colburn Dance Academy feeding into LADP. That’s an aspiration, but we’re not there now. You have to already be a seasoned professional to be in LADP. There’s a maturity level that’s required in a small company, and we’re lacking a bridge right now. Say you’re a 19 year-old, someone who’s really well trained in classical ballet. You can’t just jump in to LADP as it is now.

Why do LADP dancers require that extra experience?

When you have a small dance company, everyone does everything. If you start out in NYCB, the opposite extreme, you do the same piece 42 times your first year. You get on stage, make all your mistakes in the back line. It doesn’t really impact the performance too much if you’re a weak link and you learn many things. Then you gradually take on more responsibility as you gain performance and stage experience. That can’t be taught easily; you have to just go out and do it. When you only have nine dancers, everyone’s in everything. Someone who’s still trying to figure out what it means and takes to be a full time performer, and you’re on the road a lot, doesn't have the depth that you need to work at that level. You can learn it quickly though. I have an aspiration that we set up a bridge program where we send students to do a year with a structured company to get them performance experience and then bring them back to LADP.

What advice do you have for dancers aspiring to join a company like LADP?

I think we’re now in a new season in the dance field. We’ve done ballet to the top level it can be done. Everyone can do 32 fouettés, double tours. We’ve reached an amazing technical level, to the extent the technique is actually becoming a little bit boring. We need to get back in touch with artistry and diversity, how we present our art. That’s something that’s very significant. At LADP, we’re not trying to do 32 fouettés; we’re trying to communicate dance in new ways to make it a richer experience for the audience. We also have a really diverse repertory. So to be a really rich artist for a really rich company like this, your spectrum of dance has to be broader. Obviously take your ballet class every day, but definitely take a look at the other art forms. Embrace them and learn about their history. Be the person in the room who, when the choreographer wants to do something new, you can step out there and not just do a good dance step, but an interesting dance step. I think diversity informs that.