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This new app from choreographer Benjamin Millepied lets you train at home with some of dance’s biggest stars

The founder of the L.A. Dance Project has a new digital platform that pairs live instruction with a sneak peek into the company’s rehearsals and performances.

This new app from choreographer Benjamin Millepied lets you train at home with some of dance’s biggest stars
[Photo: courtesy of L.A. Dance Project]

As I gracelessly rose up for a port de bras last Wednesday morning, I wondered what my L.A.-based instructor, Janie Taylor, thought about my conspicuous lack of form as she watched me over Zoom. Taylor, a former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, is now with the L.A. Dance Project, the dance company led by Benjamin Millepied, who is known to the non-dance world as the choreographer behind Black Swan (and Natalie Portman’s husband). I wobbled—and hoped Taylor’s next students on the company’s new LADP app offered her a little more to work with.

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Benjamin Millepied [Photo: courtesy of Morgan Lugo]
Dance, like many other fields, has gone virtual during quarantine. An amendment to the famous Shakespeare quote for 2020 might read, “All the world’s a stage/ And all men and women merely pixels.” Case in point: For this interview Millepied video-chatted with me while sitting against a quilt at his in-laws’ home. (He joked that he hoped the background would make him look more bohemian.) Taylor oversaw my Zoom class from her L.A. home.

When quarantine suddenly robbed us of precious gym and studio time in March, online dance classes began proliferating on Instagram Live. Working dancers and choreographers like Ryan Heffington, whose delightfully campy Sweatfest classes regularly draw upward of 4,000 students, reached a new level of stardom. One of Portman’s own trainers from Black Swan, former New York City Ballet principal dancer Mary Helen Bowers trains supermodels and the likes of designer Alexa Chung through her Ballet Beautiful workouts and livestreams. American Ballet Theater principal dancers James B Whiteside and Isabella Boylston have been teaching donation-based ballet classes under the moniker The Cindies to raise money for the ABT crisis relief fund and other organizations. Even fitness behemoth Peloton, famous for its at-home bike and treadmill workouts, added dance classes to its app in March.

The LADP app takes this experience of live-streamed classes to a new level by packaging this professional-grade instruction with a sneak peek into the company’s rehearsals and performances. The app is free; access to the classes is $9.99 a month.

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The app is a savvy effort to prevent layoffs similar to the ones that have hit many dance companies, while raising the profile of Millepied’s  eight-year-old organization. Classes are taught by members of the company in genres including ballet, modern, and hip-hop. Guest dancers also make appearances on the app every week. Familiar faces like Tyana and Safya, of Instagram and TikTok fame, teach students their viral dances, for example. Students will eventually be able to book private Zoom lessons (similar to the one I took) with their favorite instructors.

[Photo: courtesy of L.A. Dance Project]
The app will also let users watch pay-per-view virtual performances and give them exclusive, behind-the-scenes access to the company’s rehearsals, which will soon resume. “It’s important to find ways to continue [rehearsing]. We’ve put stages outdoors where people are performing together, and we have dancers isolating together so that they can work,” Millepied says. The company’s live performances will be held for very small IRL audiences. But through the app, they will be available to thousands of viewers. In another app feature, famous friends, including Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky, recommend books and films. While Millepied says he hasn’t had much time to read during quarantine (he has two children with Portman), he is currently reading To Live and Defy in LA: How Gangsta Rap Changed America.

Millepied says he first saw the power of dance on-screen when Black Swan (which he also acted in) became an Oscar-winning hit in 2010. While working as the director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet in 2013, he established a digital platform to showcase the company’s work. And although the LADP app was born of necessity—he created it and put it out in less than two months—he sees the company’s move toward digital as permanent.

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“I wanted to bring an entrepreneurial model to the LADP. We’re a smaller company, so we can avoid some of the pitfalls [facing] larger organizations during COVID-19. We’re not performing in an older building, for example.” he says. “Even before the coronavirus [hit], classical arts organizations had trouble filling seats. Because they have to fill up the house, the artistic programming can be less interesting—they don’t want to take chances.”

By creating its own digital platform and untethering itself from more traditional ballet patrons, Millepied is setting up the LADP to be a more risk-taking organization, one that welcomes and attracts more diverse audiences and students. Even ones whose port de bras could use a little polishing.

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