Breaking the Ballet Mold: We Talk to L.A. Dance Project’s Daisy Jacobson Before Her Masterclass and Performance in Honolulu
Ahead of her one-night-only performance in Hawai‘i, the California native reflects on her dancing, childhood trips to the islands and what it’s like to work with Natalie Portman’s husband.
Photo: Courtesy of L.A. Dance Project
Growing up as a classically trained ballet dancer in Manhattan Beach, California, Daisy Jacobson felt like she never really fit the mold. She didn’t have the right body type (or so she was told). She struggled with chronic pain from a knee condition.
Then in 2012, she attended the debut show of a new company, the L.A. Dance Project, and realized what a career in dance could be.
Innovative. Collaborative. Diverse.
That’s largely due to its founder and artistic director, Benjamin Millepied. (Sound familiar? He choreographed and appeared in the 2010 film Black Swan, which is also how he met his wife, actress Natalie Portman.) Under Millepied’s tutelage, the company gained global recognition for its high-caliber dancers, fluid choreography, and groundbreaking work with musicians, designers, filmmakers and composers.
Saturday, LADP will perform for one night only at the Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall, and Jacobson, now in her second year with the company, will be among the dancers gracing the stage.
We spoke to the Julliard graduate about her journey to LADP, her coolest dancing experience and her childhood memories of the islands.
HONOLULU Magazine: What is your dance background?
Daisy Jacobson: I started ballet when I was 6 years old. I trained in a small studio in Torrance, California until I was 18. I was a ballet dancer, but I really never fit the mold. My body type was never really quite right. I had teachers tell me, “Structurally, you’re built like an athlete, so to make up for it, you have to lose 10 pounds,” and I was like no way. I’m not going to get an eating disorder. But it hurt, and I had to work really hard to get noticed and really focus on my dancing. I actually saw L.A. Dance Project’s first show ever in 2012, and when I saw these dancers, I thought wow, they’re so free and they have these different bodies and they weren’t so cookie-cutter. They have so much knowledge that I don’t, that I could see myself, hopefully, getting there. I had always thought of modern dance as this boring, kind of ugly, easier-than-ballet dance form. But they weren’t doing the kind of modern dance that I learned in ballet school or summer programs. It was different. They did a piece where I was like, wow. It was a cross between ballet and modern. They were still pointing their feet!
HM: How did you eventually get involved in L.A. Dance Project?
DJ: I asked Benjamin to choreograph my senior showcase solo for the end of the year. I thought it was going to be a longshot, but he agreed and it was easy because I came home for spring break and I learned my four-minute solo in three days. It was so not what I thought I would do. It was in sneakers! I was so nervous just to be in the room with him. I’d never worked for him before and I wanted to do well, because learning the solo was basically my audition. He comes from New York City Ballet, and they have a very clear, unique sense of musicality, and he choreographs a lot that way, so the solo was super musical and also dynamic, playing with hard and soft and fast and slow. It was very hard for me, but really fun. The last day I worked with him, he like took me into his office and offered me a contract as an apprentice for the next season. That was the only year (in 2017) he hired apprentices. It doesn’t make sense for this company, though it happens a lot in traditional companies. … We do such a range and we definitely perform in bare feet and need knee pads, but he loves that and I think that’s what the company likes about me, that I’m willing to do anything that’s classical to extremely not, and that’s kind of important for this company.
HM: LADP emphasizes collaboration. How has that perspective influenced you as an artist?
DJ: In ballet companies, a lot of time dancers are told what to do. You take in the details, but the choreographer is the one that creates the whole work. But at L.A. Dance Project, you collaborate with the choreographer, whether it’s making a phrase (sequence of choreography) or using a phrase and making it your own. In the last piece we made with Ben called “I fall, I flow, I melt,” he definitely asked us and used our improvisation, and it was more collaborative in that sense. We have to think for ourselves, use our brains, offer ideas, and help with the material. He even listed us as collaborators in the program. He doesn’t want to dictate exactly what we do all the time. It’s still very much his work, but there’s definitely conversation going. It’s much more satisfying. You feel like you have more ownership of the material and what you’re doing.
HM: LADP performances have been known to take place in unusual spaces. What is the most non-traditional space you've danced in, and how did you adjust to that setting?
DJ: This year, we did Romeo and Juliet with the LA Phil at the [Walt] Disney Concert Hall. [Millepied] filmed us with this giant camera dancing backstage at the concert hall, outside, above in the courtyard. He would follow the lead couple outside and follow them back, and everything was projected live inside for the audience. You could see where they go. I was in the corps and we did a ballroom scene in a freight elevator, which was like a giant elevator to move props and sets. That was one of the coolest things we ever did and it was all him. It was his concept, his choreography, and he shot it. He was basically dancing with us. It was amazing. It took a lot of rehearsing, and it’s so different than dancing on stage. You have to get out of sight of the camera when he moves. You’re also dancing on concrete, which doesn’t feel so great. But it was really cool, a great experience, and we’re going to do it again in Paris.
HM: Honolulu's performance takes place in a traditional theater. What can the audience expect from these performances?
DJ: There are three very different pieces. “Orpheus Highway” is super energetic. The music is really strong and there’s a beautiful film that plays behind the dancers on stage. It was filmed in Marfa, Texas on a highway. There’s so much to look at. It’s about the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and he goes to save her in the depths of hell to be together. They love each other, but they can’t look at each other or else they’ll die, and in the end (spoiler alert!) they look at each other and die. It’s very complex and layered, and it doesn’t stop. It’s very powerful.
There are three very old duets from a Martha Graham documentary that Ben loved, but were never actually performed. Somebody from the [Martha Graham Dance Company] came and restaged them on us. The first is “White.” It’s very structured, very stoic and beautiful. The second duet is called “Star,” and it’s really fun. There’s a lot of lifts and tricks. It’s a lot of fun to dance. “Moon” is, I would say, the most technical and probably one of the hardest dances. It’s a bit longer. It’s about the sun and moon shining on each other. It’s really beautiful.
“Bach Studies” (Part 1) [is a dance] Ben made last year and it’s all set to Bach. We have these chairs that we set around the room, and the lighting makes it feel very much like you’re watching us in our own space. There’s a lot of interaction between the dancers, and a lot of moments where dancers are doing different things at the same time. We’re wearing these track suits made by Alessandro Sartori. Everything’s in black and white. The music is just so beautiful and the dancing really reflects the music, but in a way that’s still modern and new. [Millepied] always says that Bach made this music and no one knew then what the heck he was doing. It still makes so much sense today, and that’s what’s exciting about it.
HM: What is your average day like?
DJ: It starts at 10 a.m. We have class in the morning that’s either one-hour or an hour-and-15-minutes. It’s usually a ballet class and twice a week our rehearsal director teaches a modern class. Then we have a 15-minute break and we’ll rehearse from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and then from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m., we have lunch. From 3:30 to—the latest we’ll go is 6:15, but lately it’s been 5—we rehearse. Right now, we’re doing creation, where somebody comes and sets a piece on us. Not everybody is called to every rehearsal, so it’s possible to have breaks if, say, only the men are needed or the women are needed. But I like a lot of people in the room. It’s more fun.
Something interesting about our studio is that we don’t have mirrors. They’re not really seen as a necessity here. Our space is beautiful, but it’s a performance space, so there are wooden risers where the mirrors should be. Mirrors make things easier to learn, but we’re all professionals and pretty aware, and I think it makes you not judge yourself so harshly. We take dances from rehearsal to the stage so quickly that it actually makes the transition a lot easier. Also, it’s so annoying to see dancers whose eyes are always trained on the mirror. So many bad habits can come from that.
HM: Have you been to Hawaiʻi before? If so, what do you like to do when you visit?
DJ: I have! My dad has a house on Diamond Head. I have been going to Hawaiʻi every Christmas since I was a baby. We’d rent the same house in Kāhala. My dad would go every year since he was a baby, and his parents would take him to the Royal Hawaiian. My grandmother used to stay in the same hotel room every time. I haven’t been since I was 17 or 18 and I’m excited to come back. So many people in my company haven’t been before. I want to eat good food. We’d go to Town in Kaimukī and Duc’s Bistro in Chinatown. ‘Ono Seafood on Kapahulu Avenue has the best poke. I also like malassadas from Leonard’s Bakery. It was always so unique to Hawaiʻi for me. It was always so exciting to get in the car and go there with my family.
HM: You’re also teaching a master class at Ballet Hawaiʻi. Any advice for our local dancers?
DJ: I’d say don’t be afraid to be yourself. Know what your weaknesses are so you can build on your strengths, and be open to everything. Soak everything in like a sponge and take every correction given, even if it’s not to you. Always be willing to learn and don’t tell yourself you can’t do something. That’s really something I believe in.
I have a knee condition. I’ve been in pain since I was 12. It was a part of me that I hated, not only how my body looked, but that my knees weren’t functional for dancing. It took me a long time to figure out how to find freedom in dancing, because I was in pain for so long and it was really discouraging. I remember being in class [at Juilliard] and clenching my teeth to get through a jumping combination. Finally, the doctor told me to get surgery and I did, and I’m so happy now because I’m in less pain, but it took me a long time to recover. My muscles needed to rebalance themselves. I had to find ways to dance that didn’t hurt me. In retrospect, I think it made me better. It’s not even a thing I worry about anymore. I don’t feel insecure. I feel like I can do everything.
L.A. Dance Project performs at the Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall Saturday, March 16, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $30 to $75 and can be purchased at Blaisdell Box Office and other Ticketmaster locations. Visit ballethawaii.org or ladanceproject.org for more information.