When the L.A. Dance Project bounds onto the stage this week, it will be a homecoming for one dancer, Greenville native Nathan Makolandra.
"It's exciting," Makolandra says. "I always thought Spoleto would be a great place to perform. My parents actually live on Pawleys Island now, so Charleston is right there. They are coming to the show. It will be my mom and dad, their friends, neighbors. It's quite an exciting opportunity."
Makolandra left Greenville to attend New York City's acclaimed arts college, The Juilliard School. It was at Julliard that he met Benjamin Millepied, the choreographer who gained fame for his work in the movie, Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman (who Millepied later married). Millepied told Makolandra about the dance company he was about to form and, after graduating from Juilliard in 2012, Makolandra flew to the West Coast to become one of the founding members of the L.A. Dance Project.
But don't believe for a minute that this troupe is going to perform sunny, California beach-inspired work. L.A. Dance's Spoleto program shows the influence of both ballet and modern dance with an emphasis on dark themes.
In "Murder Ballads," choreographed by New York City Ballet's choreographer Justin Peck, the inspiration of the late choreographer Jerome Robbins can be seen.
"It's a piece we do in tennis shoes," says dancer Aaron Carr. "It starts with just all of our tennis shoes laid out in fifth position and we race onstage to tie our shoes." "Murder Ballades" is based on traditional American songs about murder, featuring a score by Bryce Dessner, and mixes playful movements with haunting duets. "We're running around like a pack of friends here and there," Carr says. "In the duets you can see a little more of the dark side of the piece because the music is so fast, it pushes us forward and it's nice to see my colleagues sort of huffing and puffing and going along with me. It keeps me going. The piece has a sense of hope and unity of group. We're all sort of jamming out together, but there's also the dark undertone of the ballad."
Carr, who is starting his fourth year with the company, also went to Juilliard, and performed as a freelance dancer, touring internationally before joining L.A. Dance.
Carr can also be seen in "Hearts and Arrows" the second part of Millepied's Gems trilogy, a work commissioned by jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels. With music by Philip Glass, the dance is designed to feel lighter, with eight dancers creating multiple patterns.
"This is one of my personal favorites," Makolandra says. "So many people love Glass and these pieces of music that Benjamin chose. There are six movements in the piece. Throughout the piece, each dancer has a solo or a duet and you can see how musically different we all are as a company. I get to watch five movements before mine and watch all my colleagues being incredible and then I get to dance for my friends and the people with the energy they build up."
Carr adds, "We're wearing black with a silver checker pattern and these awesome black jazz shoes. It's kind of cool because it starts with everyone in the wings. I sort of face the outside of the stage and I am pushing the rest of the seven backward and I turn around and start the piece. It's all silent and, as I turn around, the music kicks in. That anticipation, before the music where maybe you just hear the orchestra tuning up, it's one of my favorite sounds in the world. It's a fun piece, where we all have our featured section to tell our own little story, but then the group pulls us back in. Audiences like it because it's symmetrical, there are eight of us and the cyclical music takes us in waves."
Both Carr and Makolandra dance in "Harbor Me," by Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. The piece has multiple casts, some all male, some all female and some mixed. Set to music by Korean composer Woojae Park, "Harbor Me" plays with the notion of the safety of harbor, as well as the harbor as an impenetrable border.
"'Harbor Me' is one of my favorite pieces in the rep," Makolandra says. "The music is incredible. It's an exciting dance that evolves depending on the dancers participating. There is a lot of movement, a lot of lifting, and the music is just going and flowing." Makolandra says the dance is also the most difficult to perform due to the twisting, folding, and backbends required. "These are things you shouldn't be doing outside of yoga, all the while making yourself stay relaxed and easy in your body," he adds. The "Harbor Me" piece has the most challenges because it features only two other dancers who have to rely on each other. "If anyone is not present, you feel it immediately. It's about being available not only in your solo moment, but being completely there for your other two dancers. Because if you're not, you don't succeed," Makolandra says.
Carr agrees that "Harbor Me" is challenging.
"We're wanderers in the piece," he says. "When we come closer to each other, we pull each other into what we are doing. It's a sanctuary feeling. You see the struggle and the realness of it, throwing ourselves off balance and using each other in a way we don't always do in dance. It's only about 20 minutes, but it's very physical. It's all about relying on each other, being consistent but not being predictable."
Makolandra hopes the audience — including his many South Carolina friends and family — will see how much the company enjoys dancing together.
"I hope the audience sees the joy and sees that we feel lucky to do what we do. I know I do," Makolandra says.