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By Joseph Carman
Benjamin Millepied's new company tests the city's appetite for concert dance.
Millepied rehearsing his ballet Plainspoken with New York City Ballet dancers. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
It’s hard to keep track of Benjamin Millepied. The man whose surname translates to “1,000 feet” appears to be everywhere at once, with 1,000 hands running 1,000 projects. He may be the dance world’s answer to James Franco.
Last November, Millepied announced plans to assemble his L.A. Dance Project, which debuts this month in conjunction with the Los Angeles Music Center. Within the last five years, he has choreographed or staged his ballets for major-league companies like New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opéra Ballet, and the Mariinsky Ballet; danced—and since retired—as a principal dancer with NYCB; choreographed Khovanshchina and The Bartered Bride for the Metropolitan Opera; choreographed the musical Hands on a Hardbody (slated to come to Broadway this season); and directed six short films. He also choreographed the movie Black Swan, met Natalie Portman, started a relationship, and the couple had a son, Aleph. Oh, and he’s the face of Yves Saint Laurent’s new fragrance L’Homme Libre.
Whew. A free man, but a very busy one.
Right now, however, Millepied is fixing his focus on the L.A. Dance Project. But why Los Angeles, a city historically indifferent to dance? Trips to L.A. with NYCB, he says, made him “fall in love with the city. I thought a lot about how to bring dance here. I know Balanchine wanted to do it.” Los Angeles is, not coincidentally, where he lives with Portman and Aleph. But he also likes the youthful energy of the city’s often unacknowledged arts movement. “In terms of dance it sort of feels like the visual artists’ scene in New York in the 1960s,” he says. “It has a feeling of freedom that is encouraging after New York, which is incredibly saturated with so many exhibitions.”
Talks with the L.A Music Center prompted Millepied to ponder a new way to produce dance. “I thought, I’ll put on one tour and see how it goes,” he recalls. Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center serendipitously agreed to commission the first program. Millepied considered Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project as a model: six dancers, non-elaborate productions, funding from a foundation, and touring, especially to Europe. Millepied has used his connections to solidify partnerships with Maison de la Danse in Lyon, Sadler’s Wells in London, and Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet; each residency will produce a premiere within the next two years.
What he didn’t want was to start a satellite Balanchine company. “You need a corps—that’s 6 million dollars immediately,” he says. “It’s not what I was interested in. I have danced Balanchine all over the place. I want to work with artists who are embracing their time.”
But he imagines resurrecting seminal, seldom-performed collaborations by venerated choreographers. The premiere program includes Merce Cunningham’s Winterbranch (1964), with piercing music by La Monte Young and a set by Robert Rauschenberg. Winterbranch disturbed ’60s audiences, who variously interpreted it as images of race riots, concentration camps, or the atom bomb. Millepied simply describes it as “a really riveting piece that is dance-intense.” (He loved Cunningham’s work so much that he once auditioned for his company, but didn’t join because, “I was not prepared to only dance one man’s work.”)
Also included on the program are William Forsythe’s Quintett, an elegiac 1993 piece set to a hypnotic score by Gavin Bryars; and a Millepied premiere, with new music by favorite collaborator Nico Muhly and visual design by painter Christopher Wool.
“Powerful but difficult works” is how Charles Fabius, the producer for the L.A. Dance Project, defines the program. “There is no sense we want to ‘please’ the crowds in L.A.,” he says. “How that goes over remains to be seen, but we think it’s an interesting challenge.”
Choosing these pieces, says Millepied,“is a statement that even though I’m not American, I have worked and danced here my whole career, so I wanted to be very careful not to be the American company that does all European work.”
Pacific Northwest Ballet in Millepied’s 3 Movements. Photo © Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.
When Millepied speaks of collaboration, he extends the meaning to all those working around him. He calls L.A. Dance Project—notice the absence of the word “ballet”—an “art collective” with composer Muhly, art consultant Matthieu Humery, producer Fabius, and film producer Dimitri Chamblas. (He calls his collaborators his “think tank.”)
Will Los Angeles audiences support LADP (which is a resident of L.A. Theatre Center)? “I’m going with what I believe in,” says Millepied. “It already has a life.” His intention reaches “beyond just putting ballets on the stage” to include projects outside of theaters and in museums, such as his collaboration last summer with installation artist Mark Bradford at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
And he’s not seeking initial overexposure in the press. “It’s going to take time for us to really get a unity and a look,” he says. His past executive experience helps. Between directing his own company Danses Concertantes, the Morriss Center Dance Workshop, and the annual summer Nantucket Atheneum Dance Festival, he’s produced about 130 performances over a decade. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes already!” he admits. “I have a chance to walk into this project at a time when everything connects.” For now, Millepied isn’t pursuing other choreographic gigs or even restaging existing ballets (although he admits he would find time for NYCB or the Paris Opéra).
Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève in Millepied’s Spectre de la Rose. Photo by GTG/Vincent/Lepresle, Courtesy Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève.
Millepied has announced four of his six dancers: Frances Chiaverini (of Armitage Gone! Dance and Luca Veggetti’s work), Julia Eichten and Nathan B. Makolandra, all Juilliard graduates with experience in choreographing, a skill Millepied prefers in his dancers; and Morgan Lugo, a SUNY Purchase graduate who danced with Morphoses. Millepied also hopes to dance in Quintett this fall. Auditions for dancers who must “permanently reside in California” were held last November at L.A.’s Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.
His decision to retire from NYCB, via a simple press release, was natural: “I felt like I wasn’t giving it the necessary discipline,” he says about performing. “I wasn’t interested in feeling my capacity diminish.” Those who remembered the buoyant performer with the gleeful jump could detect a sense of disengagement on the stage as he shifted his concentration to choreography. He desired no fanfare or farewell program. “Dance for me didn’t start with NYCB and end with NYCB,” he says. “Oh, nooooo. I didn’t want the balloons.”
At right: The young Millepied in Robbins’ 2 & 3 Part Inventions, late ’90s. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
But all those years at NYCB did shape his choreography. Millepied credits the musical and physical finesse Stanley Williams demanded in his men’s classes at the School of American Ballet as a major influence: “That movement quality, that fluidity I have in my dances probably has a lot to do with the way he taught ballet.” Watching dancers like Peter Boal, Nikolaj Hübbe, and Ethan Stiefel at NYCB in the ’90s also had an impact on him. “To me Ethan was the dancer,” says Millepied. “He was so good at dancing his heart out to the music.”
And then there was Jerome Robbins, who acted as a mentor to Millepied, both in life and art. The naturalistic approach he gained from studying modern and African dance while growing up in France made him feel “super-connected to Jerry’s pieces,” he says. “Jerry did what he was interested in. That’s what I do. There’s no reason why I should only be making my little dances in the corner. If I feel also like getting behind a camera, then I’ll be making more films in the future.”
Another game changer was Muhly, his musical muse, whom he met when the composer was conducting the Philip Glass music for Millepied’s Amoveo at the Paris Opéra Ballet. After hearing Muhly’s compositions, says Millepied, “I was baffled by how such a young guy could have such a clear, deep voice. There was nothing superficial about it. His facility to re-orchestrate is incredible. He’s a dream to work with.” Millepied considers Two Hearts, created with Muhly for NYCB last May, the most mature work he has choreographed: “I felt I really showed a lot of restraint that I hadn’t shown before.”
For Two Hearts, Muhly drew on a European folk song that juxtaposes a lovely melody with gruesome lyrics about a bride’s murder. Their choreographic collaboration, which ends with a richly drawn pas de deux for NYCB stars Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle, started out as it almost always does—with a simple diagram “that can fit on a cocktail napkin,” says Muhly. “Benjamin’s movement is so respectful of the music, but he understands how he can work against it, so there is push and pull.”
Millepied, normally chatty, grows uncommonly mute when asked about Natalie Portman. “In the end, like any great relationship, one motivates and inspires the other,” he says with the monotone of someone weary of paparazzi. Of his son Aleph, born in June 2011, he describes the “crazy rush of emotions and love that feel like you’re opening a bottle of champagne.”
“A rich life molds you as an artist,” says Millepied, now 35. “I look to the things I am passionate about.”
Joseph Carman is a senior advising editor of Dance Magazine.
Where to see the new company: Walt Disney Concert Hall, L.A., CA, Sept. 22–23 • White Bird Dance, Portland, OR, Sept. 26 • Peak Performances, Montclair, NJ, Oct. 25–28 • Westobou Festival, Augusta, GA, Oct. 6 • Le Pin Galant, Merignac, France, Nov. 20–21