He's Got the Moves: Ballet's Benjamin Millepied

He's Got the Moves: Ballet's Benjamin Millepied

It is a testament to the strength of the teachings of George Balanchine (1904-1983) that some of the greatest proponents of his choreographic principles are artists who had no live contact with the great man. Benjamin Millepied, who was 5 when Balanchine died, is a prime example.

When he was a teenager, Millepied, whose mother was a dancer, left his native France to train at New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet. Upon graduation, he was invited to join New York City Ballet, which was co-founded by Balanchine. Millepied remained with the company from 1995 until 2011, advancing through the ranks from corps de ballet to principal dancer. Now a world-recognized choreographer, Millepied becomes director of the Paris Opera Ballet, the world's oldest national ballet company, in the fall. He credits Peter Martins, his mentor at NYCB and a disciple of Balanchine, as a major influence on his career.

“My NYCB director, Peter Martins, has probably had the most collective influence on me in terms of repertoire, emphasis on steps and respect for good partnering,” he says. Speaking of repertoire, Millepied, who is known for his original, modern and experimental choreography, looks forward to assuming responsibility for Paris Opera Ballet’s “healthy amount of masterworks,” as he calls pieces such as The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Giselle. “I’d love to recreate these,” he says. “Recreating them can absolutely be as exciting as creating your own work.”

For Millepied, inspiration for a new work comes from the music. “My dances are an emotional response to a score,” he says. “I immerse myself in the music, listening to it a great deal and finally printing out an architecture and structure on paper to see if it’s the right one, notating directly onto the score. Once the pianist starts to play, I begin to transfer it to my dancers. But since each body is slightly different, ballet can never be an exact art form. That’s the beauty of it.”

Composer Nico Muhly has been a favorite and frequent collaborator. “I just love his music,” Millepied enthuses. “It’s extraordinary.” Included in New York City Ballet’s Spring 2014 season at Lincoln Center (April 29 thru June 8) are two Millepied/Muhly works: “Two Hearts” (performed May 1 and 3) and “Neverwhere” (performed May 27, 28, 30 and June 1).

Ever the consummate artist, if Millepied, the choreographer, has his way, there will be further collaborations: “I would like to work with artists from other disciplines—a whole range of composers, like Thomas Adès, and visual artists, like John Baldessari and Gerhard Richter. That would broaden the art form for all of us.”

» New York City Ballet, David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, Columbus Ave., at W. 63rd St., 212.496.0600, Spring 2014 Season: April 29-June 8

Photos: Benjamin Millepied in rehearsal and "Two Hearts"  in performance, Paul Kolnik