From the best of European ballet to Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project – an interview with Axel Ibot and Patricia Zhou

LADP_MurderBallades_2_Rose Eichenbaum
L.A. Dance Project in Justin Peck’s ‘Murder Ballads’. Photograph: Rose Eichenbaum

American Patricia Zhou and Axel Ibot, who is French, both have very classical backgrounds. The former has danced with the Royal Ballet and the Staatsballett-Berlin, and the latter was “Sujet” in the Paris Opera Ballet before he left to join Benjamin Millepied – French choreographer, ex-director of the Paris Opera Ballet, and founder of the L.A. Dance Project – in Los Angeles.

I wondered what edged them both towards this new beginning in a smaller-sized contemporary company. Patricia told me: “I was initially very attracted to it because I really wanted to experience something completely different from what I’ve done. I’ve always wanted to work with Benjamin, and he’d mentioned becoming slightly more classical. Also, joining the L.A. Dance Project meant I had more opportunities to dance duets, for example. It’s really different here, so I came for the change.”

“Yes, it was the same for me,” said Axel. “I’d been with the Paris Opera Ballet for 15 years – we did dance a bit of contemporary but I wanted to be part of a different type of company, with a smaller number of dancers – I went from 150 to a dozen dancers! It means we’re more privileged, we get more time on stage, and we get to dance everything. I needed this radical change. Also, Benjamin and I knew each other, so I already knew I liked him and his work.”

Axel was one of the dancers featured in the 2015 documentary film ‘Reset’, which showed some of Millepied’s time at the Paris Opera Ballet, and the creation of his contemporary piece ‘Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward’. This piece was revolutionary, in that it gave younger and less experienced dancers a chance to shine and took no account of the Opera’s usual strict hierarchy – every dancer was equal on stage. In our interview, Axel told me how Benjamin Millepied’s time at the Paris Opera Ballet, although short, really changed him as a dancer. “Benjamin showed me a new way of doing things, a different mindset. It’s not that I didn’t like it before, it always went very well for me, but Benjamin brought this sort of wind of change: the new approach of wanting to alter things, being able to dance even when you’re not an Etoile, wanting to mix everybody together, trusting the young ones… He also made lots of good changes at the Opera including to dancers’ health, and to things we never previously thought about because we were in a routine, and everything was going well. But he saw that there were lots of improvements that could be made at the Opera. He changed people’s mindsets – and now the younger generations have experienced that, they know there are things that can’t go back to how they were before.”

Now in his first year at the L.A. Dance Project, Axel told me that he still loves watching classical ballet – “But I prefer dancing contemporary and I’m happy not to be doing too much classical,” said Axel. “Of course, being part of a ballet production is magical. Some people may say it’s getting old, but it’s still beautiful: the music, the costumes… But I personally prefer dancing in a smaller group.”

Patricia feels the same, and misses being part of big story ballets. “But I also really enjoy doing contemporary and moving in different ways,” she added. “It’s great to have experience in both.”

The dancers told me they have struggled a lot with all the floor work involved in contemporary because it’s so far from what they had to in ballet companies.

“It’s a different technique, and the dancers who have been in the company for longer have really mastered it. But it has helped us improve as dancers, and it’s an interesting learning experience. Also, everything goes so fast you don’t have time to think about it, you just have to do it!” said Axel.

The dancers explained that Los Angeles is really buzzing on the dance scene and audiences there are more open to new work. “It’s not like in Europe, I feel like there’s more freedom and anything is possible – but that’s also America in general,” expressed Axel. “You really can do anything and there’s this sort of crazy energy. It’s great being in L.A..”

I asked him what he’s found to be the biggest differences between the world of dance in France and the US. He thinks it’s especially the dancers’ mindset, which is “more positive” and hard-working in the US, compared to France where they “do definitely like complaining!”.

Patricia and Axel talked to me about creating the first full-length piece they’d worked on with Benjamin Millepied, ‘Bach studies part 1’, as they were both newcomers this year. They interestingly began by creating the last section, and everything came together at the very last minute. “It’s exciting to see how things come together, because during the creation you’re never quite sure where it’s going and what’s happening.”

About Millepied’s way of working, Patricia told me, “It was very interesting to see how fast he is. He’s very involved and fast-paced – in Europe it’s usually slower, people tend to take more time to get things.” The dancers described how the choreographer arrives with a very set idea of what he wants to do with his piece, but he will sometimes decide to keep a dancer’s interpretation of a movement that he likes.

Axel’s favourite piece from the night’s rep was his duet with Nathan Makolandra in ‘On the Other Side’. “It really touches me, and it’s quite rare to have a duet between two men. It’s so lovely to dance, and I really like the story. That duet is definitely the highlight of the year for me.”

Patricia also enjoyed dancing in ‘On the Other Side’. “It’s very fast and jumpy, which is not really my style of dancing, but now we’ve done it a lot I feel way more comfortable,” she said. “Actually, joining the L.A. Dance Project has made me more confident in myself. We’re travelling most of the time, so we don’t get as much rehearsal as we feel like we need, but every time we go onstage it all comes together, everything works. It has really taught me to be more confident in what I can do, it’s a fantastic learning experience.”

Axel added: “We’re really learning to manage ourselves and surpass our limits, because everything goes so fast. We dance a lot and change the rep often, so for me it’s a new way of doing things. We had to learn a lot of pieces when we arrived in September, a whole repertoire that the others already had, and then we had to perform it straight away, with a different programme each week. You have to be very quick, and it was a great challenge.”

Asked what his ambitions for the future are, Axel replied he’d like to keep dancing, and perhaps choreograph. “I’ve never done it before, but I have got a few ideas, so I just need to find the right time to dive into it. I think the L.A. Dance Project will bring me the self-confidence I need to start getting into it.”

“I would love to work on some film stuff, which is what Benjamin is really into now,” Patricia said. “It would be amazing to be a part of that and see how it works, especially since we’re in L.A.. We made a film with Benjamin a couple weeks ago of ‘La Chaconne’ (the last section of the new piece ‘Bach studies part 1’) because it was created in our studio. We were literally jumping off the walls, and I think he was very excited about creating that in that space. That was a very interesting experience, getting to see behind the scenes.”

To find out more about the L.A. Dance Project and the dancers, click here. To read my review of their performance, click here.

You can also read my interview with LADP dancer Nathan Makolandra from last year, and my review of last year’s performance.

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