Director of Danse

April 30, 2015

Benjamin Millepied on his predecessors, the French style and his ambitious new era at Paris Opéra Ballet

Millepied working with Aurélie Dupont. Photo by Agathe Poupeney, Courtesy POB (2)

Ever since the news broke in 2013 that Benjamin Millepied would be artistic director of the Paris Opéra Ballet, many wondered whether the Bordeaux-born choreographer and former New York City Ballet principal was experienced enough to handle the oft-insular company. The unveiling of POB’s 2015–16 season—the first programmed by Millepied—demonstrates that he has the ambition to steer it in a new direction. With 20 creations or company premieres, it puts the focus firmly on new classical choreography. Millepied’s masterstroke is the appointment of William Forsythe as associate choreographer; top names in ballet, from Alexei Ratmansky to Justin Peck, will also make the trip to France next season. Local reactions have been mixed due to the quasi-absence of French choreography, but change is in the air: Millepied is shaking up the status quo in everything from health care to casting. As the company gears up for a brand-new era, the young director sat down for a frank assessment of his new home, and a taste of things to come.

You went from a small operation with L.A. Dance Project to the huge machine that is the Paris Opéra Ballet. Was the transition a shock?

I’m very aware that the two jobs are completely different. The idea behind LADP was to create a home for the American modern dance repertory, but Paris is bringing me back to my career as a dancer. It’s a ballet company, first and foremost. Of course there are all the issues that go with the size—the bureaucracy, the French laws, the unions. There is stuff in the system that’s 150 years old, and there is so much talk about tradition!

How did you construct your first season?

Everything is about choreography and its relationship to music. My goal here is to focus on ballet: I want a repertoire that will challenge the dancers’ technique, utilize their talents. In a way it’s a transition season with Brigitte Lefèvre because there is also some contemporary work with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Maguy Marin, but I chose pieces where the craft of choreography is almost balletic. The seasons after this one will be more classical.

Millepied giving notes on his
Daphnis et Chloé

The season has an American feel to it, with Balanchine, Robbins and Justin Peck. How do you feel about the French repertoire, and choreographers like Roland Petit or Maurice Béjart?

I have to get to know their work. My interest doesn’t necessarily lie there, but there are ballets which may be relevant on some programs. My time here is also a chance to do something different for a while, and I don’t see why I should deprive myself of the best people making ballet today, from Alexei Ratmansky to Justin Peck. At some point I won’t be here anymore—I’m sure they’ll get to do other ballets again.

Nureyev productions have dominated the classics in Paris. Do you want to keep them?

We are doing his La Bayadère and Romeo and Juliet next season, and I’m going to keep some of his other works, but not all. There are some where the choreography is really lovely, but essentially he made things that he loved to do himself. He liked difficulty, oppositions, things that are quite awkward. But that’s because he loved technique so much: You have to find that pleasure when you dance his choreography.

You immediately started casting young dancers in big roles, starting with Léonore Baulac and Germain Louvet in

I feel it’s very important to give dancers roles at the right time, and you have to start quite young if you want to see an evolution. But I want to try to push everybody up, not just young dancers. I want everyone to have more opportunities, which is why we’re doing a ballet like Goldberg Variations next season.

How would you define the French style nowadays?

What I retain of the French style is the elegance, the restraint. But in the last 10 years, I’m missing a lot of the essentials: the épaulement, the musicality… This company had these things at one point, more so than today. There’s been too much concern with positions and not with how you move from one to the next. I want more contrast, more life.

Do you plan on doing away with the infamous internal competition, the concours de promotion?

We’ll see. I think it’s anti-art: You can’t rank dancers, and it’s completely unfair to judge them on one day. The dancers say it’s a chance for them to be seen, but when I started to teach class, a lot of people didn’t come because they were afraid to show themselves. There are a lot of contradictions. If they want to keep the concours, in a way, too bad for them.

Injuries have been a major issue at POB. How are you addressing it?

Dance medicine doesn’t exist in France, and unfortunately that goes along with not knowing how to take care of your body. I’ve been looking for staff to work with me. I found a French orthopedist who is aware of the problem, and we’re bringing in new PTs, Gyrotonic, massages. The culture is going to change, and I want people I can talk to so I know what’s wrong with the dancers and how to cast them.

You’ve mentioned the need for more diversity. Do you want to hire from outside the POB School?

I want to bring in the best possible people, period. I’m not going to just hire from the school if I have better people from outside when we audition.

How will the new academy for young choreographers work?

I think ballet should be taught like music composition. It’s a craft, and choreographers need to have the keys to find their voice. We’ll select a few people from the company and two choreographers from outside, and for one year they will have dance history classes and mentors to work with them. William Forsythe will be a part of it as our new associate choreographer. It’s everything that I wish I’d had.

Is choreography taking a back seat for now in your own life?

I look at choreography differently now. I want to create work that’s right for the company, challenges the dancers, teaches them how to partner. The work I will create next season will be for the corps, to push them.

What are the challenges of being a choreographer-director?

I believe that ballet companies belong to choreographers. You could say some choreographers don’t have management skills, but a ballet company should have someone at the helm with a very clear vision for ballet. If you think of Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky or Justin Peck, they make people dance a certain way. The system that I arrive in here makes it hardly possible to do that. The truth is that today the real tradition of ballet, as it should be, is in America. Whether or not you like how the companies are dancing, they are the right size and the director can have a real impact on the dancing, starting in class. Here, with 154 dancers, seven company classes every day, two theaters, it’s very hard.

You’ve been called an American in Paris by the French press—do you feel French or American now?

Both. I have 20 years of experience in America, but I felt French my whole life there. I think when you come in from the outside, you always bring something.