Benjamin Millepied’s decision to leave his post as director of the Paris Opera Ballet was shockingly abrupt, not only because he has only been in the position for a little over a year, but because so much was promised by his appointment.
Millepied arrives in Paris with big plans to revitalize the company’s repertoire. As a choreographer himself, he planned to create new ballets in-house; but he also foresaw a dramatic increase in the number of new commissions, bringing in works by choreographers such as Wayne McGregor, Justin Peck and Crystal Pite that he considered essential to the creation of 21st century ballets.
Millepied also spoke of restoring music and musical creation to the heart of the company, with scores commissioned for some of the new works and productions in collaboration with the opera company. During this time he identified the importance of fostering dance-making talent within the ranks of the company and, with the appointment of William Forsythe as Associate Artist, he set up an academy with a training program to develop young choreographers.
More ambitiously, Millepied aspired to free the company from what he saw as its hidden adherence to tradition. He planned to relax his competitive system of ranking and promoting dancers, and challenge complacency on his signature style. Parisian dancers are renowned worldwide for their elegance, precision and grace, but they can also appear mannered and Millepied invited his company to more expression, freedom and musicality in their performances.
It seemed to succeed, as even in its first season critics began to note a new zest and fluidity. Yet Millepied, who was born in France but spent his adult career dancing and choreographing in America, was trying to bring about these changes with a brutality that many in Paris found hostile. He spared no effort when speaking in public about his mission “to bring a breath of fresh air to ballet”. During a TV documentary aired just before Christmas, he said the company was in a rut, too attached to its strict hierarchical structure and nowhere near as “excellent” as it believed. It was sometimes as boring to look at as “wallpaper”.
Unsurprisingly, many dancers were offended; one told Le Monde that the atmosphere in the company had become “very stormy” following the Millepied attack, another senior manager said he had never experienced anything Phone. Millepied, however, in explaining his motivations for leaving the company barely touched on those disagreements. Instead, he focused on the fact that the demands of running a business as big as Paris proved incompatible with his personal ambitions as a choreographer. “I want to regain my freedom and I want to create,” he says.
For this, Millepied will return in July to Los Angeles, where he still leads the LA Dance Project, a small contemporary dance company he founded in 2012. With him will be his wife, Natalie Portman, and their son, and while Millepied said Portman did not influence his decision, there were rumors that the actor was unhappy in Paris and keen to base himself professionally in America.
Whatever the motives for Millepied’s decisions, there is a larger issue here, which is the challenge facing any outsider trying to reform an organization as large and inherently conservative as POB. With 150 dancers and three centuries of proud tradition, the company is as tough and cumbersome to run as a giant ocean liner. Millepied genuinely seems to have misunderstood the beast he was dealing with when he came to Paris, to have underestimated the complexity of his politics, and the sensitivity of his internal dynamics.
There is a parallel here with the situation created by the Royal Ballet when it experienced its own “breath of air” – Australian artistic director Ross Stretton. Aside from – if we may – the ugliness with which his appointment ended, with allegations of sexual harassment from some of the dancers, Stretton’s problem as manager was that he simply had no couldn’t find the company that hired him. During his 13 months in the job, he made some good repertoire choices – the Royal had its first Mark Morris ballet, for example. But Stretton never understood what gave the company its identity. Key dancers such as Sarah Wildor, Zenaida Yanowsky, and Irek Mukhamedov were sidelined, as they were too idiosyncratic for his liking; the classics were neglected and in general there was a feeling of dissatisfaction and disconnection within the company, which threatened to hit on its management style.
Back in Paris, the former ballerina Aurélie Dupont has been appointed to succeed Millepied. Trained at the Paris Ballet School and until 2015 a beloved star of the company, Dupont has the POB spirit embodied in her bones. In her first public statement, she stressed that her vision for the company would maintain some continuity with Millepied’s, and there are hopes that the latter will return as a guest choreographer. Paris Opera director Stéphane Lissner is adamant that Millepied’s brief tenure should not be seen as a mistake, remarking with typically Parisian aplomb: “I have no regrets having appointed Millepied. He leaves too early but others leave too late. However, those whose sensibilities have been hurt by Millepied will be comforted by the fact that Dupont’s style promises to be more respectful, more soothing even – as she told the gathered press: “It’s a story of love with the Paris Opera Ballet. You lose your soul when you join him. It takes time for things to change. »