Interview: Composer Nico Muhly on his role in artistic collective LA Dance

This article is from 2013

Composer Nico Muhly explains his part in artistic collective LA Dance

Collective perform at Edinburgh International Festival 2013

Composer Nico Muhly has collaborated with the likes of Bjork, Grizzly Bear and Philip Glass. Now his music comes to Edinburgh, paired up with Benjamin Millepied’s choregraphy for LA Dance Project. Claire Sawers finds out more

‘New York City is kind of like the Edinburgh Festival in August,’ composer Nico Muhly is explaining. ‘Except it doesn’t quit. There’s so much going on, great stuff – but it can get overwhelming at times.’ Muhly is familiar with that nagging FOMO sensation – the Fear Of Missing Out on the newest / best thing.

‘You feel guilty that sometimes, you’d rather stay in the house, on the couch – in the same clothes, hanging out with your dog,’ he laughs, sounding embarrassed at this confession. New York-based Muhly is midway through explaining what drew him to set up the LA Dance Project – an artist collective on the west coast of the States which he helped launch last year.

‘I don’t like to obsess over regionalising audiences,’ he says on the subject of east versus west coast comparisons, ‘but in LA, the market is less saturated for this kind of thing – there’s only really one full-time dance company, so there’s an enormous hunger for contemporary dance, and fun stuff. We’ve felt really warmly received over there.’

Muhly founded LA Dance Project with his friend, the choreographer Benjamin Millepied, and three others – an art consultant and two producers. Millepied was a classically trained dancer long before he was a choreographer, and is probably best known as the star dancer / choreographer behind Darren Aronofsky’s dark ballet drama, Black Swan. Despite his years spent as principal dancer in the New York City Ballet, and his upcoming gig as director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet, to many, Millepied is best known as Mr Natalie Portman, after meeting the actor on the set of Black Swan. He’s now relocated from New York to LA, where he lives with Portman and their son, Aleph.

But it was during Millepied’s NYC Ballet days that he and Muhly’s paths first crossed. Muhly was studying composition at the Juilliard School in Manhattan and Millepied asked if he would conduct a Philip Glass piece that he was adapting for a ballet performance.

Muhly had already proved himself to be a few things by that point in his music career; curious, prolific, and a repeat-collaborator. As well as releasing his own solo albums, he’d worked with Björk, Grizzly Bear, Antony and the Johnsons as well as symphony orchestras and classical soloists, so the Philip Glass project made sense.

‘There’s something I particularly love about collaborating,’ Muhly says. ‘Composing alone is satisfying in a different way, but when you’re working with other people you’re getting constant feedback, which can really help the process.’ In fact, working with Björk earlier in his career (on her 2004 song ‘Oceania’) helped shape how Muhly operates now. ‘Björk’s such a singular artist. I just tried to give her the best ingredients that I could, then leave her to take them away and manipulate them. It’s a bit like handing over some cut-up veg, ready to go, then watch them make an amazing meal out of it all. I try to emulate that approach now when I work with people.’

When Millepied and Muhly decided to set up LA Dance Project, they wanted it to be a place where composers and choreographers could pair up to generate special new works, and also present works they considered had been overlooked. So next month sees LA Dance Project present the world premiere in Lyon of a piece choreographed by another NYC Ballet dancer-turned-choreographer, Justin Peck, featuring original music by Bryce Dessner, from the Brooklyn indie-rockers, the National. The month after, they’re putting on Invisible Cities in LA, an opera to be enjoyed through wireless headphones, based on a book by Italo Calvino.

Before that though, the LADP are in town for their Edinburgh debut, bringing a three-hander show, made up of Millepied’s own Moving Parts, plus works by American avant-garde choregraphers Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe. Muhly worked closely with Millepied to create Moving Parts, as they fused an enigmatic score for organ, violin and clarinet with modern choreography. Seeing as they live on different sides of America and both travel a lot, they ended up doing most of it over the internet.

‘You’d be surprised how similar the languages [choreography and composition] are – so it became obvious which gestures and moods were going to match up together. Benjamin and I started by agreeing on a big shape, which we drew on a napkin – then we zoomed in on bits, a bit like a Google map. We’d email back and forth, and Benjamin would set up a camera so he could email me sections of the choreography to look at.’

Muhly’s very proud of the end result, which will be performed over three nights in Edinburgh, including his birthday. (‘Sadly I’ll be working in New York that day!’ he says, ‘but hopefully someone will be buying me dinner while it’s on.’)

Celebrity associations and creative friendships aside, what Muhly really hopes audiences will latch on to is the dancing itself.

‘We have only six dancers in the collective, and they are very much the motor for everything we do. They are wonderful. After we’ve done our bit, it’s heaven watching them dance. Just heaven, heaven, heaven.’

LA Dance Project, Playhouse, 473 2000, 24—26 Aug, 7.30pm, £10–£30, part of Edinburgh International Festival,

Male Duet from "Moving Parts" Benjamin Millepied

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