Opera ballet

The great tour of Natalia Vodianova at the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris with the new director Benjamin Millepied

When Napoleon III commissioned Baron Haussmann to replace the winding streets of his country’s capital with arteries of wide, stately avenues, the centerpiece of the project – and its most expensive building – was to be the Paris Opera. Occupying more than 120,000 square feet and twelve floors (including five underground), this temple of opera and ballet bears the name of its architect, Charles Garnier. Chosen from plans submitted by 171 architects, its heady Renaissance pastiche defines the embellished excesses of the School of Fine Arts. “What is that?” asked Napoleon’s empress, Eugenie, angrily when shown the design (she was said to favor the architect Viollet-le-Duc). “It’s not a style; it is neither Louis Quatorze nor Louis Quinze nor Louis Seize!

“But, Madame,” replied Garnier shrewdly, “it’s Napoleon Three!”

Although the Palais Garnier took fourteen years to build and the Emperor was long since deposed when it opened in 1875, the recently installed Third Republic applauded it as a symbol of the high respect the French hold for their heritage. cultural. (His unbridled exuberance has been imitated as far away as Hanoi and Manaus, Brazil.) Now, this legendary institution is turning over a new leaf with the arrival of 37-year-old French dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied. As the new director of the Paris Opera Ballet, he joins a wave of glamorous young innovators leading legendary artistic companies, from Gustavo Dudamel at the Los Angeles Philharmonic to Andris Nelsons at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

France takes its cultural life very seriously. Sixteen hundred people are employed between the Garnier and its 1989 upstart, the brutalist Opéra Bastille by architect Carlos Ott (there are 150 people in the costume workshops alone), and the French government subsidizes half of their 200 million euros in annual operating costs. This is a country, after all, where a new ballet production will make the evening television news. No wonder Millepied, who was born in Bordeaux but made his career in New York, admits it was “really probably the only job that was going to bring me home.”

In many ways it was a surprise appointment – an internal promotion was expected – and Millepied confessed that the possibility initially made his head spin. He has a history with the place, having created three ballets for the company (including Amoveo, with music by Philip Glass), but, he says, “I didn’t go to school, so I’m basically an outsider.” Discouraged by the outdated rigor of the French ballet school system, Millepied chose instead to train at the School of American Ballet in New York. He joined the corps de ballet of New York City Ballet in 1995 and, mentored by Jerome Robbins, quickly rose through the ranks to become soloist three years later and principal dancer in 2001. He retired from the company in 2011 to creating the LA Dance Project with composer Nico Muhly and three others. “He was a lovely dancer, with a wonderful stage personality,” Roslyn Sulcas of The New York Times told me, “a wonderful partner and a bit of a virtuoso himself. But I’m not sure he fully lived up to his promise as a dancer – he had many different interests.

As well as directing ballets by Robbins, Peter Martins and Christopher Wheeldon, among others, Millepied has choreographed eighteen ballets for a wide range of companies, from the ABT to the Dutch National Ballet. In 2010, he boosted his profile exponentially – and the reach of ballet – when he choreographed the dance sequences and appeared as a demanding dance partner in Darren Aronofsky’s feverish ballet drama. Black Swan, through which he met his star, Natalie Portman. The couple quickly had a romantic relationship. They married in 2012 and have a three-year-old son, Aleph.

Pat McGrath does Natalia Vodianova’s makeup with her eyes closed

Millepied brings the positivity and enthusiasm of two decades spent in the United States to an establishment notorious for its bureaucracy. “He will have to deal with a lot of institutional crustiness,” observes Sulcas. “Things get done a certain way because they’ve always been done that way. But he is an incredibly talented director, fundraiser and people manager – he proved it early on with his entrepreneurial ventures. All this bodes very well for Paris. Millepied is also used to wearing many hats. He fondly remembers an exhilarating evening when he danced with NYCB at the Opéra Bastille and then took a motorbike taxi to see his own ballet at the Palais Garnier. “It was amazing,” he recalls, “but it was scary because those motorcycle riders are completely crazy.”

This summer, when I visited, Millepied had come from Los Angeles, where the family was based; they expressed excitement about moving to Paris (with its strict privacy laws). At the time, however, Portman was in his native Israel, working on his first film, an adaptation of the Amos Oz film. A story of love and darkness, Millepied’s travel program was therefore even more complex.

Millepied is there to audition nearly 200 candidates (twenty from the Paris Opera Ballet’s own school) for eight places that have opened up in a company renowned for the slender elegance and poetic talent of its dancers. “It’s a very painful process,” says Millepied, a dashing beauty himself. “Very tough. They’re all doing variations and we watch them in class and on stage. They’ve probably waited a long time for this, so it’s a bit intense. You have to think about their potential for growth – what that person might look like in ten years.

Millepied’s real debut will be the winter seasons of 2015 and 2016, with a dizzying 170 performances and seven newly commissioned ballets. His own piece for the season (in a program featuring works by Robbins and Balanchine that are new to the house) is a collaboration with Muhly, Alber Elbaz and artist Philippe Parreno. One would expect no less from a choreographer who has worked with talents as varied as architect Santiago Calatrava and Kate and Laura Mulleavy de Rodarte. The Mulleavy sisters (who costumed Portman in Black Swan and dressed her for her wedding) aspire to do Sleeping Beauty. “It’s their dream,” says Millepied. Watch this place.

Millepied follows illustrious steps. The boisterous direction of Rudolf Nureyev in the 1980s nurtured stars such as Sylvie Guillem and Isabelle Guérin. “It’s not a conservative audience at all,” explains Millepied, who points out that her predecessor Brigitte Lefèvre, “has done such demanding programs here, and the audience is open to it. It’s Paris, so artistically I can do whatever I want. I can take risks!

In the meantime, he is putting his new house in order, installing spring-loaded dance floors in the studios and taking care of the internal collaborators. “It’s very exciting for an organization that you hear is so hard to change,” he tells me. “But I found people who had a real desire to move forward. We have a lot to do, but I set the bar as high as possible. »

He hopes to commission work from Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky and Justin Peck, and raise the profile of individual dancers. It also provides for an annual fundraiser. “Who doesn’t want to come to a big dance party at the Paris Opera? he asks, pointing to an ornately decorated backstage room where pretty Degas ballerinas once congregated while admiring gentlemen watched them from a hidden balcony above.

And despite discovering a family of mice living happily in their temporary offices, Millepied loves this place, because despite its overwhelming scale – and he hasn’t had time to explore the whole place yet – the building has a almost intimate charm. “There’s a comforting feeling to work here,” he says. “Ballet is quite magical, but this setting makes it even more so.” On the one hand, he discovered that the whole edifice rests on an artificial lake (Garnier enlarged an existing tributary into an emergency water pump system called the great flood).

Natalia Vodianova, who plays Millepied’s muse in this portfolio, was delighted to have the opportunity to make her own discoveries in the building, including the cheerfully colored antique ceiling by Marc Chagall commissioned by André Malraux in the early sixties. Although she has never danced herself, Natalia has fond memories of being taken to ballet by her beloved grandmother in Russia. “I have always loved and adored ballet,” she recalls. “It’s the beauty, the finesse of the dancers and the choreography – and the challenge of it.”

Finally, she was able to get on the ballet stage. “I felt like a princess or a character in some kind of fairy tale,” she says with a sigh. “It was an absolute dream.”