Millepied at the Paris Opera Ballet with “rather an American feel”

In early October, the Paris Opera Ballet’s new triple bill was filmed live at one of the most beautiful buildings in Paris, the Palais Garnier.

The program of works by three choreographers, the company’s new director, Benjamin Millepied, Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine, was telecast in France and later released as a film in cinemas. The Australian cinema release coincided with the week when the terrorist attack took place in Paris.

That meant the backstage and front of house scenes of the opera house, and the references to Balanchine’s and Robbins’ love of Paris and the Paris Opera Ballet were particularly powerful and moving.

Jean-Pierre Frolich, the repetiteur for the Robbins’ ballet, Opus 19/The Dreamer and Sandra Jennings, repetiteur for Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, were interviewed on film about the ballets and both recalled the times the two New York-based choreographers who travelled to France to work with Paris Opera Ballet.

It wasn’t a surprise to hear Millepied introducing the film by paying homage to Robbins and Balanchine and acknowledging their “dual influence” on his own choreography.

Although born in France, Millepied spent much of his life studying and dancing in the United States where the Jerome Robbins Trust and Foundation underwrote Millepied’s work.

In his mid teens, he began to take classes at the School of American Ballet and as a full timer at the school he was mentored by Robbins.

Millepied joined the corps of the New York City Ballet while still in his teens and eventually rose to the rank of principal dancer.

From 2006 to 2007, he was choreographer-in-residence at the Baryshnikov Arts Centre in New York and in 2012 founded the LA Dance Project in association with the American composer, Nico Muhly.

Muhly, who has collaborated with Millepied several times in the past, wrote the score for the choreographer’s new work that opened the Paris Opera Ballet triple bill.

The dancers, of course, were French, but everything else in the ballet had a distinct American-Anglo accent.

The title of the ballet was in English – Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward – the lighting design was by Lucy Carter, a frequent collaborator with the English choreographer, Wayne McGregor.

And Carter worked in collaboration with the United Kingdom company, United Visual Artists, a multidisciplinary art and design group.

Interviewed for the film, one of the POB dancers in Millepied’s ballet described the work as having “a rather American feel”.

What was the American feel? Perhaps the attack and energy in the way in which it was danced, or was it more of a European choreographic “feel”, with its Kylian slides and Forsythe comings and goings, complete with a side bench on which dancers sat watching other dancers dance.

Millepeid’s decision to cast dancers only from the lower ranks of the company, his choice of the composer and designers seemed like a statement from the choreographer: “This is not only a new beginning” but also an indirect acknowledgement of L.P. Hartley’s well known words: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.

At the Garnier, the ‘past’ was Brigitte Lefèvre, who retired in October last year.

As the Paris Opera Ballet’s director for almost 2o years, Lefèvre was able to create and maintain a delicate balance of classical ballets with new works by 2oth and 21st century choreographers.

But take a look at the Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire for the next seven months. There are few classical works, among them La Bayadere, Giselle and a new Nutcracker choreographed by five choreographers, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Edouard Lock, Millepied, Arthur Pita and Liam Scarlett.

After December’s triple bill of works by Christopher Wheeldon, McGregor and Pina Bausch, there will be guest seasons by three contemporary dance companies, Batsheva Dance Company in January, Anna Teresa De Keers’ Rosas in February/ March, and Maguy Marin in April/May, followed by a program in July of works by Forsythe, the Paris Opera Ballet’s new associate choreographer.

The delicate balance seems to be tipping to a new direction, at least for now.

As always, the long-term direction will be led by box office results.

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Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward, Paris Opera Ballet

Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward, Paris Opera Ballet

Benjamin Millepied in his office at the Palais Garnier, January 2015, photo Š Sophie Jouve/Culturebox