LONDON — Benjamin Millepied, the choreographer and former New York City Ballet dancer who brought an aura of glamor and intense media exposure to the 335-year-old Paris Opera Ballet as director of dance, has said Thursday that he was stepping down after just over a year in the job.
Mr Millepied, born in France, who rose to fame beyond the world of ballet when he met his wife, actress Natalie Portman, while working on the film ‘Black Swan’, said in a interview that he wanted to return to Los Angeles, where the couple lived before moving to Paris in 2014. Mr Millepied, 38, said he decided to focus on his own choreography and a small set of contemporary dance company he founded four years ago, but his dissatisfaction with certain aspects of his role in Paris has been well documented in recent months.
Former Paris Opera star Aurelie Dupont, 43, who retired last year, will become the new director when Mr Millepied leaves on July 15.
In interviews with Le Figaro and in a documentary, “Relève”, broadcast on the French television channel Canal Plus, he spoke of his aversion to the rigid hierarchical system of classification and promotion at the Opera; his dissatisfaction with training at the Paris Opera School of Dance, which is the almost exclusive source of dancers for the company; and the need for the company to be more racially diverse.
In a statement, French Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin, who is in Los Angeles to promote the French film industry, thanked Millepied and said: “I would like to salute his commitment to diversity, which I share”.
In a side swipe at the idea, often asserted as fact in the French media, that the Paris Opera Ballet is the best company in the world, Mr Millepied said in the documentary that he was not not yet satisfied with the quality of his dancing. in the classics. “I’m waiting to see real excellence,” he said, adding, “It’s not the best classical troupe, but it might be the best contemporary company in the world.”
Taking charge of one of the most legendary and tradition-bound troupes in the world, Mr. Millepied quickly shook things up. In an early coup, he secured a major figure in the dance world, William Forsythe, as the company’s associate choreographer, who was also involved in a new academy, a training program to develop choreographers , musicians, directors and singers.
In an email, Mr. Forsythe said his contract was for one year and that he would leave after Mr. Millepied left. “Ballet companies change, established institutions tend not,” he wrote.
In September, Millepied launched a digital platform for new works called 3e Scène, or 3e Scène, which features 22 films in theaters, and he has spearheaded an aggressive social media presence for the company. He also attracted international interest and his fundraising abilities at the Opera; the Ballet’s celebrity-filled opening gala in September raised more than one million euros, or $1.1 million, and it raised significantly more from private and corporate donors.
In his first season, Mr. Millepied commissioned pieces from Mr. Forsythe (who has not created a full-scale ballet for a company other than his own since 1999) and other leading international choreographers, including Justin Peck, Wayne McGregor and Jérôme Bel. He also won plaudits for improving the quality of the company’s dance.
“The Paris Opera Ballet is under new management: Benjamin Millepied became its artistic director in 2014, and this is the first season in which he has chosen the repertoire”, wrote Alastair Macaulay, dance critic in December. head of the New York Times. “It is fair to hope that he is responsible for these new styling qualities.”
The departure of Mr. Millepied will deal a blow to the image of the Opera and to the much vaunted new era of collaboration between opera and ballet announced by Stéphane Lissner, the Director General of the Opera.
Mr. Lissner, who hired Mr. Millepied in January 2013 – and who has final authority over budget, hiring and promotion decisions – told a press conference at the Palais Garnier on Thursday that he did not regret this choice. “He leaves too early, but others leave too late.” He added: “I think the two professions, dance director and choreographer increasingly in demand, not just at the Opera, have raised a number of questions.”
In a telephone interview, Mr. Bel, who opened a new job at home on Friday, said he had accepted an order from Mr. Millepied because he believed in his ideas on reforming the institution. “I’m very interested in seeing how Opera dancers integrate ideas into their bodies and minds that they can’t even begin to question. It is a monarchical order, not a democratic system where issues can be raised. Mr. Bel added that a text he had written for the program, in which he spoke about these issues, was not used. “It didn’t really bother me, but I think if you don’t allow criticism, you don’t move forward.”
Rumors of Mr Millepied’s departure surfaced in a report by French magazine Paris Match on Wednesday and quickly sent shockwaves through the French media.
Mr Millepied, an established choreographer who has created four pieces for the Paris Opera, said in the phone interview that he was leaving to focus on his own work. “I want to regain my freedom and I want to create,” he said. “I was honored to have the opportunity to work at the Opera and with the dancers, but this profession, as it exists today, is not something I want.
He said that despite rumors that Ms Portman was unhappy in Paris, the decision to leave was entirely his. “It’s not true that Natalie wanted to go,” he said. “She was completely supportive of what I wanted to do.”
He said they would return to Los Angeles, where he planned to turn the LA Dance Project into a larger company that would include ballet in its repertoire.
“I want to fully build my vision for a dance company of our time, respond to cultural challenges, build audiences and make dance more popular,” he said. “It’s time to redefine what a dance organization is today.”
His new ballet, “La Nuit s’Achève”, will be created on Friday at the Palais Garnier in a mixed program. He has two ballets planned for the 2016-17 season, which are expected to be announced on Wednesday.