Art

LALA Dispatch: Keeping Company with Benjamin Millepied

Tonia Lynn Barber

Photography by Nicole Mangiola

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Benjamin Millepied says when reminiscing about the pre-talks of opening his own dance company. “I had always been interested in the idea of running a company.” But the dancer and choreographer, who joined New York City Ballet (NYCB) in 1995, eventually becoming a principal in 2001, had witnessed the effects of the 2008 financial crisis—dancers being laid off and companies compromising artistic integrity by shifting to “dessert ballets” in pursuit of audiences to fill seats. He knew a dance company could be a risky proposition.

Still, Millepied, who was born in Bordeaux, France and began his ballet training at the age of 11 after returning from Senegal, where he lived until he was five, was ready for a change. Having performed with NYCB multiple times at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown LA, he says, “I immediately became fascinated by the city. I would drive up and down the coast, taking photos. It was a kind of mystery to me.” Drawn to LA’s eclectic mix of architecture and color, he also felt disconnected from New York. “I was uninspired by my life at the company and felt I had done everything,” he says. With the legendary ballet master Jerome Robbins long gone, Millepied decided to leave the East Coast. “My life was taking me here.”

Millepied had just finished the whirlwind ride of creating choreography for Darren Aronofsky’s award-winning thriller Black Swan (2010) when he began dating lead actress Natalie Portman, whom he later married in 2012. “I mean, I fell madly in love,” he recalls. “Natalie was traveling, and I needed to reassess and just focus on choreography.’”

Backed by a group of enthusiastic donors, Millepied officially debuted L.A. Dance Project in 2012 with its inaugural performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall featuring a Millepied premiere, Moving Parts, along with revivals of William Forsythe’s Quintett (1993) and Merce Cunningham’s Winterbranch (1964). “I wanted a company where the model didn’t force me to put on a work that I didn’t believe in,” Millepied explains of his artistic ambition and individualistic style.

Inspired by the work of Robbins and Cunningham, Millepied’s choreography, which is rooted in the foundations of ballet and expressive contemporary movements, is sprinkled with the humdrum steps of everyday human interaction. His storytelling ranges from classically abstract to modern-day authentic and is brought to life by the strength and artistry of L.A. Dance Project’s roster of diverse dancers hailing from as far away as Japan and Brazil and as close to home as Manhattan Beach.

In the last eight years, the company has toured internationally and is still going strong with its own flagship space located on East Washington Boulevard in downtown LA, where performances, residencies, classes and art exhibitions are presented weekly. “I don’t like to see the space empty, so I give it for a residency to an artist that just moved here and let it be a place for artists and relationships,” Millepied says. L.A. Dance Project also now offers matinee performances for families as well as continuing master classes with students from CalArts, the Colburn School and The Gabriella Foundation.

Millepied’s propensity for mentoring young talent is perhaps in response to his own experiences early on in his career. “I went to a boarding school when I was 15. My parents were divorced, and I had a kind of resiliency to just figure things out,” he says. “During the 16 years I was at New York City Ballet, one of the things that always bothered me was to see talent being wasted. It was sort of obvious. The more resilient people were thriving, but the ones who were really talented and just needed guidance, they weren’t being guided.”

Now a father of two, Millepied seems to take a big-brother approach with his dancers; there is a sense of play but also a watchful eye. “The students are a really big deal because that’s the next generation,” he says. “They are different, and they understand each other in a different way, and that’s really important.”

Much of Millepied’s directorial style comes from what he learned during a fraught stint back in France, when he accepted the position of Director at the Paris Opera Ballet in 2013. While his LA company toured mostly internationally, Millepied created a dance medicine program and digital stage platform in Paris, but soon became disenchanted with the Opera’s traditional worldview and old-school ways. “I felt they should be cultivating dancers that reflected what we see in the city, the people living in the city,” he says. “I learned in Paris my views and my ideas about what a company needs, what an arts organization means to a city and how you should spend your artistic energy nurturing the artists in that city.”

Millepied resigned from the position a year later and with a reinvigorated vision, vowed to make a “long-term commitment” to LA. He began applying the lessons he learned to his own company. L.A. Dance Project is a beautiful collage of cultures and voices, similar to the landscape of its city. Millepied finds new and diverse voices exciting in both his dancers and in the company’s office, where a small dedicated group of administrators works tirelessly to keep the doors open. “It’s the best opportunity to have people get together and walk together and think together,” he explains. “You get different points of view than you would have. Things you talk about are stronger.”

This belief is carried into the collaborations Millepied chooses as well. He has worked across multiple genres, with top-notch creators such as stage giant Mikhail Baryshnikov, five-time Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Oscar-nominated composer Nicholas Britell, LA Phil conductor Gustavo Dudamel and MacArthur “genius” award recipient artist Mark Bradford, just to name a few. He is once again curating a talented group for his latest project: Carmen. Starring Jamie Dornan and Melissa Barrera, the contemporary re-interpretation of Georges Bizet’s classic opera, which is slated to begin shooting this fall, will be Millepied’s feature film directorial debut.

New mashups have always inspired a new approach to his work, but Millepied is especially drawn to working with contemporary artists. He feels a particular kinship with a collaboration between himself and Barbara Kruger on a ballet that premiered at the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles in 2014. For the piece fittingly titled Reflections—it marked Millepied’s return from Paris—the internationally recognized LA-based conceptual artist created a visual atmosphere of two huge canvases featuring her signature red bars filled with white text that advocate for cultural change. Kruger is known for her graphic collages that act as a critique on systems of power, consumerism, sexuality and capitalism. Like Millepied, she has a penchant for teaching and fostering the next generation of artists as the Distinguished Professor, New Genres at UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture.

Benjamin Millepied: I knew of your work for a long time, Barbara. When I first started the company in 2012 in LA, I tried to pay attention to who was living here and was someone I had interest in working with. You came to mind as I was preparing the David Lang piece that eventually became Reflections. I had good luck when you agreed to create the environment and the text for the piece.

Barbara Kruger: I was so honored and excited when you first contacted me about working on what was an incredibly ambitious project out here in Los Angeles. I had seen you long, long ago at New York City Ballet. I wasn’t a huge ballet-goer, but I went with some friends, and it was memorable then. My introduction to dance came through being a young girl and seeing Grand Union at Judson Church and Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton and Simone Forti. What I really loved and admired about what you have done is you have taken the graceful and compelling formalities of the ballet and tied them into a great openness of spirit and movement and everyday gesture, but still informed by the rigors of conventional dance.

BM: One thing I learned from you is you have this surgical ability, in one sentence, to gather very, very specific thoughts and make these really powerful statements. To be concise and to think about using one sentence to describe what you’re expressing in a ballet has brought so much to my very loose approach. I was making this work with a very instinctive sort of approach, where things come from my personal ideas, but also the unconscious.

BK: I don’t know how you feel, but when I think of our rehearsals, that was such a productive time because it works so well to really tie our concerns and possibilities together. It brought me back to days when I had friends dance with Cunningham years ago—very different, but still, that studio, that place of rehearsal, the great energy of the dancers and how you so informed them through your choreography.

BM: It’s an ongoing process. I don’t look at the work that we’re doing and say, “Well, look at what we’ve created.” I think you put the energy into the company; you welcome artists with open arms; you welcome dancers with open arms; you have education programs; and you make sure your environment is as rich as possible by bringing people of talent from different backgrounds.

BK: Okay, I just want to say something about this. I cannot use the word “community” without putting quotes around it because it has so many possible terms. What does that mean now? Sort of the way the word “friend” has changed with social media and also, over the decades, the way the word “artists” has morphed into this notion of creatives. That’s the complicated issue. I think of this more broadly. Certainly, in terms of what we did together, I think in terms of cultures rather than art world, visual art community or dance. It’s what kinds of cultures are developed; how young people make commentary, which is what all arts are about. It’s some sort of commentary—whether performative or visual or cinematic—about what it means to somehow live a life. And now it’s so much richer because there are so many different kinds of people—race, gender, classes—who call themselves artists or cultural producers than ever. And that’s so exciting.

BM: That’s the reason I’m doing what I’m doing. It’s really for the love of the art form and creating opportunities.

BK: I know what you’re saying about young people. I teach at UCLA, which is a great public university. A lot of these folks might not become artists, but so many of them are first generation to go to college, first generation to speak English, and it’s really so exciting to think that you could strike a match in somebody, that you could somehow engage with their sense of who they are and how they can show and tell. You probably feel the same way in terms of Colburn and your company.

BM: That’s why not only do I commission new work for the dance company, but I also really pay attention to the MFAs that come out of the universities. We just recently commissioned a Chinese woman, Jinglin Liao, who went to CalArts and just produced this magnificent piece that’s informed by her response to her society in China. It’s really one of the best pieces in the last few years. It’s enriching for everyone—for me, for the dancers, for my staff—to constantly have this space that is really welcoming and allows for creation and exchange of points of view. That’s what I love so much about collaboration.

Dancers featured in this story, clockwise from center: Benjamin Millepied (wearing Lunya), Daisy Jacobson (in Cuyana), Nayomi Van Brunt (partially off page in Cuyana dress), Doug Baum (in Cuyana top and Lunya pants), Rachelle Rafailedes (in Cuyana dress), Lorrin Brubaker (in Lunya), David Adrian Freeland, Jr. (in Lunya jumpsuit), Vinicius Silva (in Cuyana), Gianna Reisen (off page in Cuyana), Janie Taylor (partially off page in Lunya) and Shu Kinouchi (in Cuyana); pictured on page 75: Anthony Lee Bryant (in white Lunya pants)Shot on location at TreePeople.

This story was produced by Tonia Lynn Barber. This story was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of LALA Magazine. Order your print or digital issue by clicking here