Why Benjamin Millepied Hit Reset

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The choreographer and dancer explains his decision to leave the Paris Opera―and what came next.

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Benjamin Millepied

Benjamin Millepied named his 2015 ballet Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward, but it’s a phrase that could be applied to the choreographer and dancer himself. The French-born artist has built a splashy and distinguished career: from his 10-year stint as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, to high-profile collaborations like his choreography for the film Black Swan, where he famously met his now-wife Natalie Portman.

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So when appointed the Dance Director at the Paris Opera Ballet in 2013 at the age of 35, Millepied was thrilled. For someone who wants to build exciting work and a legacy, it might seem there’s no better place. “It was really a great honor at the time,” he says over the phone. “It’s the position one would hope for, aim for—and the final step up the ladder.”

As we see in Reset, a documentary that follows Millepied as he puts together Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward, the storied but traditional Parisian company has both its perks and its quirks. One moment we hear about the robust financial resources at the Paris Opera Ballet’s disposal, and spy Millepied dancing alone in a studio, lost to the flow of making something new; the next we’re hearing about a union dispute that is holding up production, or learning that electronics like iPhones aren’t compatible with the building’s old systems.

Directed by Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai, Reset gives us a very close look at Millepied’s creative path. First, there are the dancers, all from the company’s corps de ballet—not the étoiles, or “stars,” as might be expected for a new signature work. “They’re all wonderful dancers, and the reason I chose them was because they’re more spongey—they’re not teenagers, they’re in their early twenties, and you can still mold them.” Then, the scintillating music, by the American composer Nico Muhly; the lighting and set design, by United Visual Artists and Lucy Carter. We also see how the delicate, geometric costumes, by Dutch fashion designer Iris Van Herpen, develop. And, of course, there’s the fluid choreography itself, which Millepied settles on cumulatively, in inspired snatches here and there.

Reset

From ‘Reset’
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“I don’t really love story ballets,” Millepied says. “I am more interested in the idea of abstracting things and working with emotions, and letting the audience find for themselves different things, different emotions.” Watching the show gradually come together is fascinating: on the smaller scale, he relentlessly adjusts tiny movements; at the other end, he coordinates the entire group as they weave amongst each other in dizzying arrangements.

As the days tick past, beginning just 39 days out from the premiere, the taxing nature of his task becomes more apparent. His assistant, Virginia Gris, buzzes industriously around, grabbing signatures and approvals in every spare second; he eats a sandwich while he directs the dancers. During a rehearsal, he ponders, and no conclusion is forthcoming: “I apologize,” he says, “but I still can’t tell if it works.” Then, startled by the intractability of his mission, he asks, “How am I gonna finish this thing?”

Benjamin Millepied and Natalie Portman

Benjamin Millepied and Natalie Portman at the 2017 Golden Globes

Outside the focused drama of the ballet’s production, broader textures emerge. We also see some of the larger ambitions Millepied—seen by some as a kind of dance renegade—harbors for himself and the institution. For one, he wants to rid the company of hierarchies and the strict competition between the dancers; they only seems to foster fear. Then, there are the uglier sides of the Paris Opera Ballet’s traditional nature: under Millepied’s tenure, Letizia Galloni is only the first mixed-race dancer to have taken a lead role, thanks to frightful ideas about whether ballet should feature diverse performers.

All of this builds a picture of the gargantuan task, both creatively and administratively, of putting together the production. So when we finally do see excerpts from the ballet, it feels immensely satisfying. Even a viewer understanding only a fraction of the heartache and joy would find Reset‘s final scenes a delight. And then—a shock, but not a spoiler, because it made the news last year—the final frame informs us that Millepied resigned from his role only four months later.

What happened?

“At that point when making the ballet I was really giving it my best shot,” he says. “But at that time I just encountered so many roadblocks, and after that it became clear that the roadblocks would get more complicated.” It seems that Millepied’s ideas and attitudes clashed with the traditions of the Paris Opera Ballet over the two and a half years he worked there: “When you come in with entrepreneurial drive and ideas, and they let you do things, but the system isn’t really set up for that…Sure, you can make some changes, but it takes a very long time.” In the end, he decided that staying wouldn’t help anyone.

But now Millepied is where he feels he should be: working on projects for his own company, LA Dance Company. Formed in 2012, its watchword, too, is innovation: in its “art ballets,” unconventional settings, online class offerings, and dealings with sponsors. “We want to show we can reach a large audience and have a long lasting organization in the 21st century, which is not easy,” he says. After letting go of a struggle with a bigger beast, weighted by history and so many other opinions, he’s now his own man: “I’m looking to create my own work and invite other choreographers and give chances to young artists, create a creative environment the way it should be.”

Reset is in theaters now.

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