L.A. Dance Project dancers talk Benjamin Millepied’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’

L.A. Dance Project in Benjamin Millepied's 'Romeo & Juliet'. Photo by Josh Rose.
L.A. Dance Project in Benjamin Millepied's 'Romeo & Juliet'. Photo by Josh Rose.

Benjamin Millepied, choreographer of the Academy Award-winning Black Swan, will be presenting a daring reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s timeless classic, Romeo & Juliet this coming June 5-9 at Sydney Opera House Joan Sutherland Theatre. 

Fresh from a sold-out run in Paris, L.A. Dance Project will be bringing to Sydney a bold fusion of cinema, dance, and theater, breathing new life into this iconic tale. Set to Prokofiev’s enduring score, the tale of star-crossed lovers the music exudes richness and intricate melodies to convey the passion and tragic story. At its core, the beloved story of Romeo and Juliet is reimagined with three couples portraying the iconic pas de deux, showcasing a diverse range of pairings – male/female, male/male and female/female. Utilising cutting-edge technology, the boundaries between stage and screen dissolve as the performance unfolds both onstage and behind the scenes. Audiences will witness the intimate emotions from unexpected vantage points within the Sydney Opera House in real time. 

Benjamin Millepied. Photo buy Dorian Prost for ELLE France.
Benjamin Millepied. Photo buy Dorian Prost for ELLE France.

Join us as we speak with L.A. Dance Project dancers Nayomi Van Brunt – who will be Juliet in the female/female couple  – and David Adrian Freeland Jr. – who will be Romeo in the male/male pairing. Both dancers will be making their Sydney Opera House debut upon their first visit to Australia.

Van Brunt has danced with acclaimed companies like New York Theatre Ballet and Wonderbound, interpreting works by renowned choreographers including Christopher Wheeldon and Benjamin Millepied. She’s performed at prestigious venues like Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and the Vail Dance Festival. Beyond dance, Van Brunt has appeared in various artistic endeavors, including fashion shows and TV performances. In 2019, she joined L.A. Dance Project, marking a significant milestone in her career.

Freeland began his dance journey at LaVilla School of the Arts in Jacksonville, FL, and continued training at Jacksonville Center for the Performing Arts. He participated in prestigious programs with The Juilliard School, Nashville Ballet, Atlanta Festival Ballet and Bates Dance Festival. Freeland earned his BFA in Dance from SUNY Purchase College before joining Ailey II, where he performed for three years. During his time there, he danced iconic pieces by Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison, and premiered works by various choreographers. He later joined L.A. Dance Project in 2016, contributing to significant stage and film productions under renowned choreographers. In recognition of his talent, he received a 2018 Princess Grace Award in Dance.

Benjamin Millepied has dissolved boundaries and breathed new life into this iconic tale. Nayomi, what elements contribute to this reimagining of Romeo & Juliet?

“The biggest aspect would be the film component. One of my favorite scenes is the dance of the nights – I call it the club scene. It’s just so fun because of the way it’s set. It’s all on film. Audiences will feel as though they’re watching a movie. I’ve watched it several times from this perspective – when I’m not dancing in the production, and it’s great to see because I had never seen anything like that personally. One moment, the dancers are dancing on stage, and then all of a sudden, they’re walking off and the cameraman (Associate Artistic Director, Sebastian Marcovici) is following them, but then they are projected on the screen in real time.

Another aspect is the male/female, male/male and female/female pairings – I dance as Juliet with another woman, Daphne Fernberger, who is Romeo. We are telling a universal love story, and this is a huge moment for people who don’t feel seen or haven’t felt seen or represented.”

David, what makes this version of the iconic tale so special and rewarding for you? 

“It was always a dream of mine to dance Romeo – a role that I love because there’s so much range. It’s the same story but through a different lens. I love Baz Luhrmann’s version of Romeo and Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. It’s the most contemporary version, and it’s a similar feel to our production. 

Since we started the production in 2019, for me dancing in this role, I’ve had the chance to evolve and learn more about myself, the character and the relationships I have with my partners. When I started on it, I was with a woman – that was a challenge because she had all this experience. She danced a version and I was a new dancer. I was a little nervous, but I knew I was ready for it. Now, I get to dance with my Juliet – a guy – who I’ve known since college. We get to perform it together in Australia, which I’m so excited about. It’s one of those situations where we know each other so well, that before a show, we won’t speak. We want to completely meet each other in real-time on stage. It’s really rewarding.”

Nayomi, can you talk us through the choreographic and rehearsal stage of the process, and how you brought your unique essence to the role? 

“I had watched a shorter version of Romeo and Juliet right before I joined the company. When Benjamin was choreographing the production that we have now, it was great to be part of the initial process and have parts created on me. For instance, recently we were rehearsing a particular section and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this part was created on me.’ I was helping some of the newer dancers with the information, and it was just a full circle moment. 

L.A. Dance Project in Benjamin Millepied's 'Romeo & Juliet'.
L.A. Dance Project in Benjamin Millepied’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’.

Benjamin is really big on us being ourselves. He’s particular with the moves, but he wants each of us to show our personality and who we are. That’s really important to me as a dancer – as an artist, as a woman and as a black woman –  to bring myself into this role. So it was a huge moment to be able to dance it because it was always a desire of mine. I’d always do the fiery, sassy roles when I was dancing in ballet companies, never something like the elegant Juliet role. So for me, it’s super special because I also get to bring Nayomi to this character and not just be this person that someone wants me to be.

Each of the Romeos and the Juliets is also different. We are all so different, and it doesn’t have to be performed exactly the same way. That’s important and special.”

David, can you give us a glimpse into Benjamin Millipede’s creative process? 

“His brain works so fast. He’s a lover of music and he listens to a lot of different music. When he has a piece of music that he loves, he just goes with it. Then we get in the studio and he’ll start moving and we mimic what he does and he collaborates with us a lot. We add layers to it; as the artist, we become his vessel for movement. He’ll direct us in some improvisational tasks, and then we get to make the phrase work. Between us and his brain, it morphs into these beautiful bodies of work – sometimes he’s even shocked!  

Sometimes he’s like, ‘That was really good,’ and then other times he’s like, ‘We might need to go back and fix that, edits and tweak,’ but it’s especially work that has lived for awhile that he is open to making fresh changes. He’s always vigilant in his work when it’s time to refresh something. He also doesn’t overdo it. If he needs to, he’ll let something sit and then return to it with a fresh mind. It’s all very honest work.”

Nayomi, what is your favourite aspect of this work?

“The balcony scene. The music is really beautiful and I love the intimacy of it. I don’t feel like I’m performing, so to speak; I love the range.

For Juliet, you know, the beginning of the ballet is really hard – technically for me, like it is in general. Then the end of it is all acting and emotion. So it gets to bring these two aspects — dance and the technique, and then the acting side. I love being able to showcase both.”

David, what is your favourite moment in the production? 

“The balcony scene is also one of my favorite moments. Dancing with another guy, we kind of switch the roles – in this male/male version, there are moments where I get lifted and I get to be soft – which is not normal – because I am the biggest member in the company and I’m often doing all the lifting. I’m a force, so it’s nice to have the chance to show my softer and more vulnerable side –  the feminine side – which is what queer male relationships are – it’s a fusion, and I love to embody that side of me.”

Nayomi, can you describe how dance and theatre with the conventions of cinema are woven into the production? 

“Pretty much in the beginning, Benjamin establishes dancer-like runs on stage and you see him on stage, then the camera man and it’s all projected and presented in real time. The footage comes on and off as the backdrop, in turn dissolving the boundaries of a traditional performance setting and perspective – it draws the audience in more intimately. 

Everything that you see is happening in real time. We’re utilising not only the stage but the entire building – even outside – which I am geeking out over because I know we’re going to get to do the balcony scene outside. 

It’s been different every time, as each building is different and the space is unique. It makes it feel as though we are two people in love and it’s just us – no one else is around. It’s more intimate. It feels more tender, true and real. For me, it’s not a theatrical ballet, there are dramatic moments and it feels more human.”

L.A. Dance Project in Benjamin Millepied's 'Romeo & Juliet'.
L.A. Dance Project in Benjamin Millepied’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’.

David, describe what the audience can expect from the score.

“The score is rich, and the audience will be touched and moved and they will see that it’s a celebration of love. They get to watch the intimacy of the emotion and feel it in the music, because of the camera framing in real time, but also see the company in the beautiful setting of the Sydney Opera House. They will be blown away.”

Nayomi, what was your experience performing Romeo & Juliet in Paris and L.A.? 

“It’s been amazing. The French are always so respectful, and they love art and dance. Sometimes we don’t know how it’s being perceived because it’s quiet – we’ll get little claps here and there during the performance, but they often save it for the bows. We know we did well because the bows were five minutes long. Especially when they do the syncopated clap –  that’s when they know, ‘Okay, we did it!’ It’s super special.

Here in Orange County, we immediately could tell the difference because the audience was so reactive to everything throughout the performance. Classic Americans – they let you know if they like something or not, which is different.”

For more information and tickets visit

By Renata Ogayar of Dance Informa.

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