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Man of Many Cultures: Benjamin Millepied Blends Up Another Piece, This One for PNB
By Rosie Gaynor
Posted October 30, 2008

Choreographer/dancer Benjamin Millepied (photo by Arthur Elgort)

     I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon following Benjamin Millepied’s mille steps online. He’s only 31 years old, but this French-born dancer/choreographer has 15+ works to his name already. There are excerpts of some of these works on the Web; I’ve listed the links below since, well, a picture is worth mille mots.  

     So what did I learn? Ten years ago, Dance magazine named Millepied one of five male dancers to watch. 

     And three years ago, in an excellent profile for The New York Times, Anna Kisselgoff wrote that he had come into his own as a dancer, but, “as a choreographer, Mr. Millepied still has to come under New York's scrutiny.”  

     It just so happened that, since then, Millepied has come under New York’s scrutiny. What an exposed and public place to learn your craft! His works appeared there at least twice in 2006 and again in 2007, and the reviews have grown increasingly positive. And although he continues to dance as a principal with New York City Ballet, during the last three years Millepied has also choreographed for the Paris Opéra Ballet—twice; choreographed for Grand Théâtre de Genève—twice; and served as choreographer-in-residence for the Baryshnikov Arts Center. His most recent piece elicited the following comment from Roslyn Sulcas of The New York Times: “[The world he creates onstage in Triade] has the feel of our time, and in it ballet seems to be a language that can be spoken today. That’s no small achievement.” 

     One of five male dancers to watch? You’d better look quick: this man is moving fast. He’s not in a hurry, but when you start counting up the commissions—more again next year in New York for NYCB and American Ballet Theatre—he’s hot. “The pieces I’ve seen of his have shown amazing promise—maybe beyond promise,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director Peter Boal, who coached Millepied in various roles several years ago at NYCB. Boal also cast Millepied in the first piece Boal himself choreographed. “I’ve always known that he had a great eye for [movement] and I wanted to grab him before he’s too expensive.” And grab him he did: Millepied’s new 3 Movements will be presented at PNB next week. 

     A nice thing about Millepied is that he has more than three kinds of movements. Reviewers have noted the influence of Balanchine, Robbins, and Forsythe. I’ll buy that. I got a sneak peek of 3 Movements last week before I interviewed him, and I could see the risky off-balance quality of Balanchine, the urban everyman of some Robbins, the drive of Forsythe. When Millepied talks of the information/styles stored in his body, he also adds folk dance, Cunningham, and Limón as well. I’ll pitch in two more perceived influences: the fluid continuity of Tharp and the poetry that is every Frenchman’s birthright because it’s in their very language.  

     More important, however, is what all these influences are acting upon. Or, said another way, who is choosing to play with these influences. Millepied is a thinker, a percussionist in a family of musicians, an accomplished ballet dancer whose earliest experiences included modern dance, African dance, and joy. You can see this in his movement. “It’s definitely my own energy,” says Millepied, “the way I like to move.” 

     Ballet was not this dancer’s original passion, but it is a central one. “I was a little scared of ballet, because of the discipline,” says Millepied, who began to dance just about the time he learned to walk; his mother was a modern dance teacher. “Dance was just such a source of joy for me. I never wanted to feel like I was being forced into something. I did it because I loved it.” Even so, when he was 11 or 12 years old—right around the time the Baryshnikov films White Nights and Don Quixote came out, he notes with a laugh—he grew intrigued by ballet. “That was really where I wanted to go. Seeing that kind of dancing was amazing.” It was a turning point for him. “I think when I decided to take ballet classes is when I decided to become a dancer…. Then, of course, I realized the kind of discipline that you need to become a great ballet dancer.” He was in a good place to learn. “I went to the Conservatoire de Lyon, and I had great teachers. To this day I feel so fortunate.” 

     Even as a child, however, Millepied was drawn to the U.S. It started at home. “My mother started dancing because of West Side Story,” he said. “We had a picture of Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins in the house. There was always this idea that America was the place to go.”  

      Although he holds firm to his French roots (“Je reste français,” he says in one online interview) Millepied has certainly learned and thrived in the U.S. “I first saw him when he was 16, at the School of American Ballet,” says Peter Boal. “I wasn’t teaching at the time, but I took class every day and so I saw him…. He’s very talented; we all noticed him right away.” Boal went on to mention the young student’s first experiences with Jerome Robbins in a piece called 2 & 3 Part Inventions. “To work with Jerome Robbins when you’re 16 is amazing. He had been making all these dark ballets.” An aside: “I was in a lot of them.” A chuckle: “Dark, death theme. [Then, here, for SAB] was the brightest, lightest piece; it was a real charm in Jerome Robbins’ life to work with these guys.”  

     Millepied has continued to cross the Atlantic Ocean, physically and figuratively, as he has experimented with styles of choreography. “Triple Duet [in 2002, at Sadler’s Wells] was really a straightforward choreography to Bach. At that time, I just went with my instinct,” he said. “Then I started to work in Europe a lot. And the expectation in Europe—especially France—is so much about your own movement quality and finding your own voice, in the sense that you’re doing something that nobody else is doing…. It’s changing now, but for a while they went totally into this really conceptual [mode]. If you were dancing on the stage, forget it. I was pulled…. So I went into this, forgetting that what I had been doing in the beginning was really just so much about the construction of the piece and my background, which is Balanchine. How to come up with interesting patterns? How to illustrate the music with great skill? It’s as simple as that. With great structure, with good steps, using the dancers well.”  

     Millepied takes issue with those who think that these are old-fashioned things to focus on; he notes that in Europe many journalists are not likely to attend this kind of work. “For them it’s the past. But there’s no rule. Even though I’m doing something with skills that have been around for a long time, I still can present this music with new ideas—ideas that are mine—ideas of today. And this ballet,” he says of PNB’s 3 Movements, “is a ballet of today.”  

     This particular underlying philosophy is rare these days, he says, but he knows he is not alone. “Not a lot of people are doing it, but there’s certainly a place for it. It’s kind of exciting. I’ve been very inspired—I was just in New York, where I saw three of Chris’s [Wheeldon] ballets. He speaks his language with so much clarity and discipline. It charged me to set this piece [at PNB]. And with [Alexei] Ratmansky coming to New York…. He has great skill. They both have great skill.” 

     One skill Millepied has used more and more over the past few years is his ability to read an orchestral score. “When I choreographed Petrouchka for Geneva, I couldn’t see myself choreographing that score without knowing it. I had a great meeting with this guy who is the associate conductor at Philadelphia. I spent three days just really learning the score. It was unbelievable. Suddenly you can see in your brain this map of the music. There’s no secret: that’s why Balanchine was so great. It’s genius too, but he could read the score better than a conductor. Once he had that score in his brain, he was able to play with it and go far, far beyond.” Millepied has revisited some of the Balanchine and Russian ballets he has danced—this time with an eye to the score to better understand “the kind of genius of these people.” 

     I asked Millepied to show me the two notebooks I’d seen him carry into rehearsal. One was the score, by Steve Reich. It is well-thumbed. “It’s totally disgusting,” he said, “I just write all over it.” Color, lines, counting, notes… “This score—it’s very  Stravinsky-esque. In order to make this work, you need great order, great discipline. The architecture of this piece is phenomenal. It really is. It’s amazing.”  

     One nice thing about Millepied’s style is that we’ll probably get to see some of this architecture. But, he says when I ask, “it’s not about Mickey Mousing. What I’m doing is adding another variation on the theme that [the composer] is doing.… I’m adding another layer.”  

     Toward the end of the interview, I asked Millepied what he hopes to achieve with this piece at PNB. I was still probing for a string of phrases that would help describe his vision or his style. Instead, he said so simply: “I hope it’s a good piece. I hope it will serve the company and that it’s a good piece. That’s all.”  That actually serves as an apt description of an aspect of his style that you can see in the second Amoveo clip below: effortless-looking complexity. 

     After spending my afternoon looking at some of the online excerpts of Millepied’s work, I’ve developed a few hopes of my own for this piece.  

     I hope the work for female ensembles doesn’t follow Capriccio, where their movements appear trite to me. This is an unfair comment; what gets lost when a live performance is translated to a tiny YouTube screen? At any rate, better to follow what he does with the solos and the large-group work toward the end. Hello, art! 

     I hope the partner work is like that of Amoveo: the dancers are so very, very connected. They are connected to the music, their physical space, their air, each other, the audience. I’m guessing it will be just like that. Even in Chaconne, one of Millepied’s early pieces, there is this sense of partnering. Granted, he’s the only one on the cast list, but throughout the film he is dancing with his environment—and the camera. 

     I hope that PNB’s piece is like Amoveo, where the women are more than just pretty objects to be hoisted up and moved around. There, they are somehow part of the lifting, part of the movement.  

     I hope that the dancers can get up from the floor. I have such a bias against dancers sprawling on the floor, since it always seems like a chore—or worse, a precious cleverness—to get the dancer back up. But in the clips I’ve seen of Millepied’s work, he can make it work. Check out the male solo in Capriccio (5:15-5:34). 

     I hope that the dancers can catch what one review called Millepied’s slouchy attitude. It is a way of relaxing into certain movements, I think. This is not the place for sloppiness or for that dreaded redundant gravity (in the physical sense and the emotional) that sometimes happens when dancers move more slowly than the music. (When Millepied dances Fancy Free, he dances the rumba sailor. I’d like to see that.)   

      I hope that I can catch the salsa bits, because I like the story as Millepied tells it. It goes like this, with hand motions and a smile: “I went to the Dominican Republic this summer for a week. I was totally in the non-touristique part. I went out dancing every night. I was dancing with people who had an older-style salsa. They were really dressed up. Three generations [living together] on $100, but they were really dressed up. I learned all the dances while I was there and I practiced with a lot of different people. And as each new person came in, we were doing more and more freestyle. They all dance. They all know how to dance. They’re amazing. I learned a lot. That week was great. So there’s a little bit of that in this piece too.” 

     I hope I recognize the parts inspired by Carla Körbes. “There’s a rhythm in the second movement,” says Millepied. “You’ll understand when you see it why it’s so her. There’s a sense of the elegance she has. She’s an extraordinary ballerina.” 

     When I asked Millepied if there’s one thing he could point to that defines his current style, he said that his style depends on the score that he is using. “I have in my body much information, from my career and my education, that I use in different ways.” But, he added, there is one common thread: the way he uses the back. “The back moves in my ballet—and in ways that you don’t see a lot of people doing in more classical work.” Millepied’s ability to give articulation to the back, to let it move, comes in part from the experience of living in Senegal for five years as a child and in part from his mother’s instruction of African dance and modern dance. But in the online clips I’ve seen, the expression of this doesn’t look like the overt contractions I did in African dance classes years ago. He uses it for ballet rather than in ballet. There are 16 dancers in 3 Movements. I hope they can all get the cat-joyful-total stretch of the back that we see in, say, “From Here on Out.”  

     And last, I hope we love this new work, because Peter Boal is into building collections for the company’s repertoire and I really, really want to see Amoveo come to Seattle, too. 

     Benjamin Millepied’s 3 Movements is part of PNB’s New Works rep, which runs November 6 through 16. Also on the program are A Garden by Mark Morris, M-Pulse by PNB’s energetic Kiyon Gaines, and One Flat Thing, reproduced by William Forsythe. (Sensitive ears? Some folks use earplugs for the last piece. Boal suggested to one woman who complained about the music that she bring her iPod next time! It’s not a happy tune you can whistle, that’s for sure, but it’s quite an experience.) Tickets ($25–$155), special-offer discounts, and short previews can be found at

3 Movements (2008) 

Triade (2008) 

From Here on Out (2007) 

Amoveo (2006. It’s touching; grab a hanky.) 

Years Later (2006, Baryshnikov! I’m not sure how the second clip fits in, but it’s lovely to watch.) 

Capriccio (2006) 

Nutcracker (2005) 

On the Other Side (2004. Grab a hanky for this one too.) 

Chaconne (2003)


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