An interview with Nathan Makolandra from L.A. Dance Project

Nathan Makolandra – copyright Morgan Lugo

After the show, I had the chance to interview Nathan Makolandra, who has been dancing with the L.A. Dance Project since it began in 2012.

I asked him how he got into the company. “I was a senior at Juilliard, and Benjamin [Millepied] had done some work with seniors the previous year”, he told me. “He was going to be starting this [LADP] company, so he called the director and said he’d like to come and look at the current batch of seniors. After auditions at Juilliard, he asked me to join what would be the L.A. Dance Project. It’s been over four years now, and it’s been cazy!”

“So what’s it like being part of the company and how does Benjamin Millepied work?” I wanted to know. He said it’s amazing, like nothing he’s ever experienced. Benjamin wanted to bring together people who were genuinely interested in choreography and collaboration – not just learning steps for a repertoire and creating a new work every now and then, but dancers who really wanted to get involved in the process.

Nathan told me: “Our first piece we did together was him learning about us, and then our second work, ‘Reflections’, was incredibly collaborative. The duet I performed in that piece I choreographed all the steps for; that was a task-based creative process where Benjamin told us to ‘Go here and work with this idea’.” Nathan explained that for ‘Hearts and Arrows’, in which each dancer has their own section, Benjamin really tried to draw on those people’s strengths in each of the movements. “That is one my favourite collaborations we’ve had. Benjamin is very musically influenced and I think that’s been made really clear in the work we’ve created together.”

I asked which piece from that night’s show was his favourite. “They’re all so drastically different!” he answered. “I’m excited that I get to do all of the extremes of the work we do. You saw ‘Reflections’ where I’m doing some breakdancing and a lot of contemporary floor work. Then I had Graham and ‘Helix’, which are modern dance and ballet; and then ‘Hearts and Arrows’ which is this very nice contemporary fusion. I have to say that ‘Hearts and Arrows’ is one of my favourites to do. The music is great, it’s fun to dance and I get lifted, which is very rare for someone my size, so it’s exciting to be a part of that!”

‘Helix’ – copyright Rose Eichenbaum

Nathan explained that the company is constantly trying to challenge what kinds of performances they can put on, and that they are actually very comfortable doing performances in non-traditional places. They have performed in contemporary art structures and museums, where the audience would walk around the landscape and see what the dancers were doing.

He tells me that they get to work with lots of different artists, and with every piece they try to bring something new and fresh. “Everyone is responsible for a key ingredient of the performance, so we come together and see what works.”

I ask him about the non-traditional environments he mentioned: what are the challenges of dancing in such places?

“For example”, he responds, “we performed as part of an opera in Union Station, Los Angeles, in 2013. There are a lot of homeless people living there, and it’s also an active train station; so there is a lot of activity, and none of the people there were involved in the show. We all had in-ear microphones and headsets, so we were listening to it; the audience also had headsets so were able to hear the singing, and sort of be involved in this private show. The biggest challenge with that was the people who were on their way home or to work had no idea what was going on, so they would run into you while you were dancing!

Rain is another challenge. It does add an interesting element to outside performances as we are investigating what it would be like to actually be in that space at that time, and sort of inhabiting what those people [the audience] are experiencing. To get that ‘real’ element of the picture is nice, because we don’t get it doing stage performances.”

Nathan is also a choreographer, which I was very interested to find out more about. I first asked him how he developed his choreography, to which he answered that he’s never been able to separate dance-making from the dancing. “It’s always been a very important part of me. I’ve had incredible teachers who have given me incredible opportunities to see how they work as choreographers. I think it was actually my exposure to musical theatre, which is song, dance, production… all of these things that need to be coordinated. I thought that might be a good job for me because I really enjoy figuring all that out.

Movement-wise it’s still a constant investigation; every choreographer has to work on finding their own voice. I’m still working on it!”

“When did you start dancing and choreographing?” He said there’s footage of him dancing as early as 2, and his first exposure to getting to make real choreography was when he was in 8th or 9th Grade (middle school/high school). “My dance teacher at the time gave me an incredible opportunity to come in and say ‘What if you did this?’. It didn’t always work, but luckily she and I worked well together so it was a good collaboration. It could have gone way worse, and it was a really nice introduction for me to get my feet wet.”

As I am interested in becoming a choreographer, I asked him advice about what route he would recommend to young dancers attracted to choreography. “You need to find what makes you excited to move”, he told me. “If you see things that you are intrigued by, try and start dissecting what it is about them or that piece, start to ask questions about things that you see. That’s what it was for me, just staying curious, and saying ‘What if you did this instead?’, knowing it’s OK if that’s not going to work. You have to accept that it might not be the right idea, but proposing it is important, especially in an environment where everyone is looking for a way to be better. I think that’s a really useful skill as a professional dancer and also when trying to reasearch becoming a choreographer.”

You can find out more about Nathan Makolandra here

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