Natalie Portman and Benjamin Millepied: All the right moves
Black Swan choreographer – and Mr Natalie Portman – Benjamin Millepied tells Charlotte Cripps about conquering world dance
Tuesday 07 January 2014
Benjamin Millepied met his wife, Hollywood star Natalie Portman when he choreographed her for the film Black Swan. Now they are set to become France's new golden couple, when Millepied takes over the helm at Paris Opera Ballet later this year. The couple who married in 2012 in an intimate Jewish ceremony in Big Sur, California, will relocate to Paris from LA full-time, with their two-year-old son named Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
They are currently house hunting for an apartment in Paris and Portman is hoping to get French citizenship.
Is the move tricky for Portman's movie career? "How my wife and I deal with our schedules is that we both feel that our family comes first," he tells me. "We want to be together. Also she is very interested in doing projects in Europe so it gives her a chance to do that as well."
Portman who can't contain her excitement at the move, recently said: "I'm really lucky. When Ben asked me if I wanted to go to Paris, I freaked. Everyone dreams of living in Paris." Millepied, who loves LA, says: "There is a direct flight from Paris so I'll make sure I go and relax from time to time at home."
The French-born Millepied, 36, whose name coincidentally means "thousand feet" in French, has been living in the US for 20 years. But unlike one of his predecessors at the Paris Opera Ballet, Rudolf Nureyev, who controversially only lived in Paris half the year, Millepied insists he will live there full-time.
"I wouldn't be interested in running a company like that. What I'm most interested in are the dancers, bringing the most passion possible out of their dancing, and for that you have to be there," he says. "I'm interested in when they are on stage, that they always dance as if it is the last dance."
Having landed one of the most coveted jobs in dance, Millepied, a former principal of New York City Ballet, has been spending a lot of time in Paris "getting to grips" with how the Paris Opera Ballet operates. He will be overseeing a corps of 154 performers and says he needs to get his head around "the bureaucracy and all the hurdles that exist". "I've got a lot of work to do to programme the season and to see what I think needs improvement. I definitely want to make it a truly modern ballet company," he says. "The biggest challenge is going back to France and getting to work with a new system that is not as immediate as the one you have been working with for years in the US."
Millepied will take over the office of the current director Brigitte Lefèvre on the fourth floor of the Palais Garnier where the company is based: "It's most practical in terms of being in touch with the staff and it's on the same floor as the studios," he says. "But nothing will prepare me for when I'm there. It will be a great learning curve. I'm taking things slowly until I'm in house."
However, Millepied's appointment at the Paris Opera Ballet has put some people's noses out of joint. It has been hinted that although he has worldwide acclaim after Black Swan, he only leapt to the top because of his celebrity status and that there were people internally at the Paris Opera Ballet who were overlooked. Laurent Hilaire and Nicolas Le Riche, both big names in the company, were highlighted as potential candidates.
His choreography style is also modern for the oldest national ballet company in the world founded in the days of Louis XIV. His experimental dance outfit the LA Dance Project, which he only started last year, is a small company bearing no comparison to this important classical company. There was also some controversy this summer when he complained about the lack of black dancers in the company.
Millepied did not chase after the job but he was approached by Stéphane Lissner, currently artistic director of La Scala, who will take up the general director's post in Paris in 2015. "I didn't want to go running for the job and not get it," laughs Millepied. "But of course I went to meet with Stéphane when they asked to meet me."
Millepied was born in Bordeaux and trained at the Lyon Conservatory, but moved to the US as a teenager when he won a scholarship from the French Ministry to study at the School of American Ballet as a teenager in 1993. He joined the New York City Ballet's corps de ballet in 1995, and retired in 2011 from the company after he became principal dancer. He has created dances for New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera, as well as the Paris Opera Ballet.
Although Black Swan, which he choreographed in 2009 is his calling card, working on the film was tricky, he says. "I had to create the illusion that the actors were professional dancers", which included Portman.
His plans for the Paris Opera Ballet include nurturing new home-grown choreographers, tailor-making works for the ballet, making ballet more popular and beefing up its online presence. "The biggest challenge is moving ballet forwards with works that are relevant to our time. I am looking at how to broaden the name of the company and to make ballet more popular. Not at all by cheapening it – but by doing works of integrity. I definitely want the Paris Ballet Opera to keep as open-minded as it has been and be open to modern choreographers."
Millepied is also the choreographer of the dramatic two minute advert for Baileys which hit TV screens this Christmas. It is a contemporary take on Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, with a cast of Royal Ballet principal dancers, directed by Ringan Ledwidge. He has starred in adverts before including Yves Saint Laurent's men's fragrance, L'Homme Libre, in which he performed a pirouette over Manhattan as the brand's face in 2011. His dancing was motion-captioned for the animated film Barbie in the Nutcracker in 2001 as well as Barbie of Swan Lake in 2003. While busy choreographing Black Swan, he also had a role in it as David/The Prince.
He is currently also working on his third creation for the Paris Opera, the world premiere of Daphnis and Chloé with music by Ravel, which will be performed in the spring, and will continue to help programme the LA Dance Project, after he takes up his post as the Paris Opera Ballet boss.
He is sure to put his own stamp on the Paris Ballet Opera – especially with his glamorous A-list wife turning up to his shows. But he is taking it in his stride and says philosophically: "I have my own way of doing things but I think things will fall into place as they are supposed to."
The LA Dance Project tours in March (ladanceproject.com). Benjamin Millepied's advert for Baileys is out now
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