Au Revoir, Millepied
In the end, the revolution Benjamin Millepied sought to bring to the Paris Opéra Ballet didn’t last long. In February, less than a year and a half after he took over as artistic director, the Frenchman announced that he was resigning to devote his time to choreography. This summer, he will be replaced by former étoile Aurélie Dupont, and his resignation has left France’s national company reeling.
Millepied’s appointment was initially welcomed by the French media and many dancers as a breath of fresh air for the institution. But issues had been mounting behind the scenes since the beginning of the 2015–16 season. Millepied’s impatient criticism of the company’s performances and traditions in the press and in a French TV documentary ruffled feathers, and signaled that he still saw himself as an outsider to his own company.
Officially, Millepied stated upon his resignation that the job, with its extensive administrative duties, “wasn’t the right fit for me.” The Paris Opéra’s general director, Stéphane Lissner, who hired Millepied in 2013, praised his work with young dancers and his creation of Paris Opéra’s online artistic platform, 3rd Stage. The new health system Millepied implemented, drawing on his American experience, has also been widely credited with improving care at POB, where injuries have been prevalent in recent years.
The company’s image has been bruised by Millepied’s departure, however. Some were quick to blame the Paris Opéra’s conservatism and outdated practices for the fallout, but the dynamics at play were arguably more complex. Millepied’s combative style and refusal to compromise with local culture took its toll: Company members stated to the press that they felt he had little regard for France’s ballet tradition and had focused on young talent at the expense of the rest of the company, where dancers retire at 42. When Millepied presented his 2016–17 season the week after his resignation, the culture clash was again clear. His last program heavily skewed towards mixed bills and American-style neoclassicism, with five Balanchine works, including the company premiere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
While Millepied will return to Los Angeles and his L.A. Dance Project, his successor, Aurélie Dupont, is looking to steer POB back to stability. The homegrown étoile paid tribute to Millepied’s vision, adding, “I’ll do my best, I promise. I have so much passion for the company and its dancers. It takes time to change things, and I will take my time.” Little is known about her artistic plans, but she argued that POB would need to dance more than two classics a season, as has been the case in recent years, to improve in the classical repertoire. After outsider Millepied, POB is entrusting its fate to a long-time insider; time will tell if the company grows more insular as a result, or thrives on its own terms.