An American returns to Paris: the Millepied/Forsythe connection

When Benjamin Millepied recently launched his first season as director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet he also announced that William Forsythe is to become the company’s associate choreographer.

Forsythe, an American who has spent most of his working life in Germany, will choreograph a new work for the Paris Opera Ballet next year. The ballet will be part of a full evening program of his works.

Forsythe will spend three months of every season working with the POB, bringing him back to the place where he choreographed the iconic work, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.

The premiere was in 1987 when Rudolf Nureyev was director of dance and Sylvie Guillem was the young star of the company.

Last week, in an interview with The New York Times’ Roslyn Sulcas, Millepied sang Forsythe’s praises: “He is an incredibly important choreographer who is connected to an American and Balanchine legacy, and an amazing teacher…our conversations together are all about ballet: technique, musicality”.

Millepied’s 2015/16 season at the Paris Opera Ballet will also include new works by Justin Peck, Wayne McGregor and Jérôme Bel and a new Nutcracker choreographed by five different choreographers, Arthur Pita, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Liam Scarlett, Édouard Locke and Millepied himself.

The season has only three full-length classical ballets, Nureyev’s La Bayadère and Romeo & Juliet, and Patrice Bart and Eugène Polyakov’s Giselle.

Although the Paris Opera Ballet can claim to be the heartland and birthplace of classical ballet, Millepied’s predecessor, Brigitte Lefevre, director from 1996 to 2014, also commissioned many contemporary dance choreographers, yet the repertoire at its home theatre, the Palais Garnier, was based on the classics.

Lefevre’s choreographers were not residents, in the same way as Forsythe will be and the same way as Wayne McGregor is resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet.

In a separate appointment, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui – another choreographer known for his contemporary dance works – has been appointed the artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders.

The Australian dancer and long time stager of Forsythe’s works, Kathryn Bennetts, quit that company as artistic director in 2012 after fighting a battle with the bureaucracy for almost two years. She knew her departure was inevitable in 2010.

That year, she told me that a bureaucratic plan to merge the ballet with the Flemish Opera meant that one administrator would be responsible for programming and budgets. It was the programming part that hurt the most.

In a highly emotional interview on Flemish broadcaster VRT, Bennetts called the proposal “ignorant and arrogant”, and said: “I do the programming”.

The Flemish Culture Minister who oversaw the decision, Joke Schauvliege, said: “She shouldn’t pretend to know anything about the arts. She should listen to experts like me”.

“Officially I have resigned”, Bennetts said, “but the way I see it, I haven’t resigned. I’ve been fired”.

Her successor was Assis Carreiro, the former director of the English company, DanceEast. She, too, was fired two years later.

The Royal Ballet of Flanders continues its connection with Forsythe as Tamas Moricz, previously a dancer with Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt, will become the associate artistic director.

Cherkaoui says he will continue to run his own company Eastman, based in Antwerp, while at the Royal Ballet of Flanders: “The course I will be seeking to pursue with the company is one of reconciliation. For a number of years there has been a constantly growing exchange between the different dance disciplines, as classical ballet and contemporary dance increasingly complement each other”.

With these two important appointments of Forsythe and Cherkaoui, the fine line that once separated the dance styles of ballet and contemporary dance are all but vanishing.

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William Forsythe, photo © Stephan Floss

William Forsythe, photo © Stephan Floss

Benjamin Millepied at the season launch, photo © Francois Mori/AP

Benjamin Millepied at the season launch, photo © Francois Mori/AP

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, photo © Brecht Goris

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, photo © Brecht Goris