Opera ballet

Benjamin Millepied on One year at the Paris Opera Ballet and the company’s new film project

Photo: Amy Graves/WireImage

When it was announced in early 2013 that Benjamin Millepied would take over the Paris Opera Ballet from longtime director Brigitte Lefevre, something like a seismic wave hit the ballet world: Millepied was an accomplished choreographer, a former director of the New York City Ballet, and had founded a small troupe, the LA Dance Project, but it hardly seemed like a shoo-in for one of dance’s most visible and intimidating jobs. Now, a year after taking office, Millepied is choreographing a new ballet for the company and pushing it in new directions. On September 15, he will inaugurate a “third stage” for the company, a digital stage, presenting original films inspired by the Opéra Garnier and its inhabitants. Millepied spoke to Vulture about surviving Year One and creating the new project, and he let us debut one of the movies, starring Lil Buck.

You are coming to the end of your first year at the helm of the company – how do you think things are going so far?
Last year was very difficult. They had the same manager for 20 years and I walked in and I had to kind of feel like I belonged. There’s not much I haven’t touched on, from schedules to dancers’ health to programming. It’s been an interesting ride, trying to change the culture here. When I came here there were some really good dancers who were held back because maybe they didn’t fit the ideal of what the body, face and neck should look like – a girl, I would say she’s gorgeous, a fantastic dancer, they’d say she’s weird. I tried to make them understand that it was wrong. Now the dancers are thinking as individuals, they’re coming to me – I feel like they’re starting to embrace change, and I’m thrilled to see them being challenged by the good balanchines and classical ballets that they will be doing this season.

You are also working on a new piece, with composer Nico Muhly. How did that happen ?
The title is Clear Strong Bright Front — it’s a bit like the manifesto of what I try to do at the Opera. I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard on a 32-minute ballet. I feel like I’m improving and I’m happy about it.

You’re only about a year away from being a director. Why was it important to create this “third step”?
When I started LA Dance Project, I started producing films for the company, just to make dance films. The first fat we did with Alejandro Inarritu. We invited this great director to come and make a dance film with us. And I directed the Paris Opera…. it’s legendary, the Garnier building, the whole history of the house, it’s so fascinating. You walk into this building and it’s amazing. When I arrived here, the doors were closed; you couldn’t get in unless you were doing a project there. There was no sense that it was open for artists to come in, just hang out, get to know the dancers, really no dialogue. For example, I am now starting to really read a lot of new French fiction — well, who are the authors who come to the ballet? I would like to develop something with a French writer. The idea of ​​having a third stage which is a digital platform was really to invite artists to come to the opera and feel like they can really create something here: work with the dancers, the music , architecture, something. So that’s what we started doing.

Eighteen films will premiere at once – any idea where you want the platform to go?
It will be totally original content; so far we’ve had a lot of people, from visual artists to directors. I want them to feel like they have carte blanche. I think a lot of people will see these films without knowing ballet or music; the films will have a life of their own and will be seen by a lot of people for reasons that may have nothing to do with the Paris Opera, but I think they have to do with the creativity that we are trying to achieve, an open-mindedness that will make people want to come to the theatre.

What does Opera management think of the project?
Stephane [Lissner, the Paris Opera’s director] was excited to make a film with some artistic integrity, made by people with a real idea or vision. One film in particular is about a dancer, it’s almost like a little documentary, about her wanting to leave the company and why, and what she’s thinking, talking about it to her fellow dancers. It’s one of my favorites, from a young director, Arnaud Uyttenhove. Some people were like, why do you want to show a film about a dancer who wants to leave? I don’t necessarily agree with her assessment of classical ballet, but the point is that it’s the voice of a young dancer. It’s a voice in the business, and I thought it was great to let that be.

Sounds like a big project to take on on top of all your other new responsibilities…
I had to bring something to direct it, produce it and be artistic director — I can’t do that and do ballets and direct the ballet! It is simply not possible! I’m involved in suggesting people to work with. But the person who entered was Dimitri Chamblas, who was actually my roommate in Lyon when I was 13. I did my first movie with Lil Buck with him, in LA for like $3 with a camera. He lives in Paris, and it was so logical to bring him here.

Speaking of Lil Buck, tell me a bit about the movie he’s in.
Wendy Morgan took him to Garnier and one of the historic studios and made this interesting parallel with him dancing and creating all these poses, working from these poses that are reminiscent of the sculptures in the theater. She uses the architecture and history of the court with Buck for this jazz soundtrack; it is a very good one.

And you also work with veteran Disney animator Glen Keane – how did you meet?
Glen and I met last year in San Francisco when I was briefly working there on a project with Google. He was in the studio next door working on an animation, which was set to music, and it was literally a girl who became a ballerina and danced on the stage of the Paris Opera. When I saw the animation, I literally had tears in my eyes. It was breathtaking; the form, the quality of the movement, the way it merged with the music, it was so emotional. So Glen actually told me that when he did Tarzan, he lived in Paris while he worked there and walked every day in front of the Opera and he was fascinated by it. He wanted so badly to enter this house and draw the dancers. Of course, I took care of it as soon as I could. So he made a short film, inspired by this dancer from the company who seems to be in a Walt Disney film.