Benjamin Millepied: A stranger in his own land

When Brigitte Lefèvre prepared for her retirement as director of the Paris Opera Ballet, she made it known that her preferred successor was Laurent Hilaire, the company’s ballet master since 2005.

By then, he had spent 30 years immersed in the culture and tradition of the Paris Opera Ballet.

He joined the company’s school in 1975 and, 10 years later, was promoted to etoile, the top rank, by the then director, Rudolf Nureyev.

But when the time came, Stéphane Lissner, the director of L’Opéra National de Paris from 2012, wasn’t interested in Lefèvre’s favourite.

He had his mind set on the United States-based choreographer, Benjamin Millepied.

When Hilaire became part of the Paris Opera Ballet community, Millepied had not yet been born.

Millepied was born in France but moved to New York when he was 16 where he began fulltime training at the School of American Ballet. From there, it was a seamless transition to join the New York City Ballet where he became a principal in 2002. He retired from the NYCB in 2011.

If it hadn’t been for the 2010 horror movie, Black Swan, which he choreographed, Millepied would be known mainly, if not only, by the dance community.

But the film, and his subsequent marriage to its star, Natalie Portman, made him a social pages’ darling, a celebrity, a front row guest at Paris Fashion Week and one of “the hot men of advertising” when in 2011 he became the face of Yves St Laurent’s cologne for men, L’Homme Libre.

(He still has a foot in the fashion game, having just begun a collaboration with Feit, an American-based label that makes bespoke shoes for men).

Good looking, young – he’s now 38 – and married to a Hollywood star, Millepied was also a potential fund raiser for the Paris Opera Ballet.

Appointed director of the Paris Opera Ballet in October 2014 he joined the company brimming with ideas but the new look he planned for the POB is now history.

He will leave the company in July, returning to the United States, his home for 20 years. The former etoile, Aurélie Dupont, will become the director in August.

Millepied’s plans for the Paris Opera Ballet were bold and extensive. He made it clear from the start he wanted to reform the company and, to use a cliché, bring it into the 21st century.

His manifesto for his first season, 2015/16, remains on the company’s website: “Our new ballets will use the classical vocabulary – one we can forever draw from to create anew – and will aim to be relevant to our time, reflect our society, and hopefully tell us a little bit more about who we are”.

Unlike Lefèvre who maintained a delicate balance between classical ballets – old and new – and contemporary works by 20th and 21st century choreographers, Millepied steered the repertoire towards new works by 21st century choreographers and inviting guest companies to Paris to perform contemporary dance works.

The companies he chose were Batsheva Dance Company (January), Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker (February/ March), and Maguy Marin (April/May).

He also appointed William Forsythe as associate choreographer. Forsythe has already announced that he will not continue in the role after his new work for the POB premieres in July.

The company’s only classical ballets this season are La Bayadere, Giselle, and Nureyev’s Romeo & Juliet, while another guest company, the English National Ballet, will perform Le Corsaire.

There’s also a new Nutcracker, but it can’t be categorised as ‘classical’.

Some months ago, there were five different choreographers listed for the production, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Edouard Lock, Arthur Pita, Millepied and Liam Scarlett. Now the L’Opera de Paris website shows only three, Cherkaoui, Lock and Pita.

Lefèvre was slow and steady in bringing contemporary dance works into the repertoire.

From 1995 to 2000, her first five years, she programmed 18 contemporary works, three by Forsythe, two by Martha Graham and one each by Agnes de Mille, Jiri Kylian, James Kudelka, Mats Ek, Pina Bausch, Carolyn Carlson, Ohad Naharin and six other much less well known choreographers.

A total of 18 works in five years did not tip the Paris Opera Ballet into a proto-contemporary dance company. Instead they were simply part of a balanced repertoire that comprised 19th century classical ballets and 20th century of works by Balanchine, Robbins, Ashton, Tudor, Bejart, Petit, Nureyev and Neumeier.

Millepied’s programming, however, was not the main reason for his very brief stint as the company’s director.

Since December, he has publicly criticised the POB’s dancers for lack of expression, for “taking no pleasure” in the dancing and at times looking like “wallpaper”.

As well Millepied questioned the traditions of the company, in particular the rigorous process of promotion.

For more than a hundred years the dancers have had to compete on stage before a jury if they want to move upwards through the ranks.

“It’s unfortunate”, he said, “that there is all this hierarchy because it has no place. What is it…all these competitions, this hierarchy? It creates fear. When I arrived and I made the first appointment with the dancers, I had dancers who trembled in speaking to me, who could barely speak to me; I did not feel particularly awesome or terrifying but there was a huge fear of the hierarchy.

Last week, in an article in the French news magazine L’Obs, one of the company’s etoiles, Josua Hoffalt, described the tension within the company that began several months ago.

The dancers were unhappy, Hoffalt wrote, when Millepied criticised them in December in the newspaper, Le Figaro and in a documentary broadcast on the TV channel, Canal+.

His remarks not only hurt the dancers, Hoffalt said, but also showed that Millepied didn’t understand the culture of company.

“The Paris Opera is an institution that has existed for over 300 years, with all that that implies in terms of hierarchy and operation.

“Benjamin Millepied was very excited when he arrived, but probably made the mistake of wanting to erase the past…

“He announced so much in the press before taking office: his desire to promote in-house talent to develop projects outside … But it is clear that a year later, the results are not there.

“It is clear that over time, the disagreement was growing and there was a gap between promises and reality. Projects he had. For him only…

“For me, this is the record that I will keep of this year under his direction: a lack of generosity, a certain absence for us and, conversely, a strong presence in the media, some content and projects for company”.

Millepied was also seen by some as a foreigner in his own homeland, more American than European.

At the Paris Opera Ballet, the majority of directors of dance have been French or Russian. *

Thirty five directors have led the company since its inception in the 17th century. Until the 20th century they were almost all French however in the mid 20th century two Americans were directors, John Taras (one year as director) and Rosella Hightower (three years).

Violette Verdy, a director for three years, was, like Millepied, born in France, spent much of her dancing career in the United States, and after her stint in Paris returned to the US.

In recent years, the Paris Opera Ballet has been led by French nationals.

After Rudolf Nureyev died in 1989, the Frenchman, Patrick Dupond became the director and was followed by Lefevre.

The French reign continues with Aurélie Dupont.

Does it matter if an artistic director was born and brought up in the same country as the one in which they now work?

After all the American, John Neumeier, has led the Hamburg Ballet for decades, while William Forsythe, also American, had a long and very successful career in Frankfurt.

Perhaps only the oldest companies, whose ballet style is ingrained in their DNA, are sensitive about their directors’ nationality and dance background.

It’s hard to think of anyone but a Russian leading the Bolshoi Ballet and many will still remember the tut-tutting in London when it was known that the Australian, Ross Stretton, was to become the artistic director of the Royal Ballet.

The outrage began before he set foot in the Royal Opera House.

On one of my many visits to London at the time, one staff member of the Royal Ballet asked me a hypothetical question before Stretton arrived.

“What’s he going to be like – a train wreck?”

However I don’t think his brief artistic directorship at the Royal can be compared with Millepied’s in Paris.

Stretton was elusive and difficult to contact, was not known to sweet talk patrons and benefactors, did not discuss the dancers in the media, and tended to flee from almost any public gathering.

There were similarities, though. Stretton spent many years in the United States, at American Ballet Theatre and both men were out of their natural environment when they left the United States.

The Paris Opera Ballet will, of course, evolve and change over time, perhaps discarding some of its traditions, but a director who leads it successfully into the future needs to move slowly and carefully and most of all, to honour the dancers.

* From the company’s beginnings in the 17th century until the end of the 19th century the Paris Opera Ballet had 18 directors of all whom French, except Gaetan Vestris, who was born in Italy and Maximilien Gardel, born in Germany.

In the 20th and 21st century, the Paris Opera Ballet has been led by 17 directors, including Millepied. Of these, eight were French, one Belgian (Joseph Hansen), two Italian (Louise Stichel and Nicola Guerra), four Russian (Ivan Clustine, Serge Lifar, George Skibine and Rudolf Nureyev) and two American (John Taras and Rosella Hightower).

The video shows Aurélie Dupont et Hervé Moreau dancing “Together alone”, choreographed by Benjamin Millepied