The New Guy: Benjamin Millepied

The biggest name in ballet leaps to Paris’s main stage.

In an announcement that startled the ballet establishment last year, Benjamin Millepied was named Brigitte Lefèvre’s successor as director of dance at the storied Paris Opera Ballet. The prolific choreographer and his movie-star wife, Natalie Portman, will abandon what he calls their “exciting bohemian life” in Los Angeles to settle down in Millepied’s native France when he takes over this fall. He recently spoke to us about his plans for the renowned institution.

Q: Have you seen things in need of immediate changing at the Paris Opera Ballet?
Absolutely. The company has actually been quite open to modern artists, and that’s a very good thing. But they have a limited repertory of [choreographer George] Balanchine. The truth is, today Balanchine’s 19th-century ballets are the best classical romantic ones that exist, so I’ll bring more of those at first, and his modernist black-and-white ballets. We also have to deal with all the big classical productions—people still want to do narrative ballets, but what are they today? How do we create interesting narrative works that are full-length? We’re going to do it, but it’s not going to be necessarily in the traditional model.

Q: Your first season is already planned. What are you considering going forward?
I have very exciting ideas with [choreographers] Justin Peck, Alexei Ratmansky, Chris Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor—these are the usual suspects. However, it’s going to be about what they do when they come to Paris. The whole first season is creative musically. Even in the modern works I’m bringing the first season, the sense of craft and choreography composition is there throughout.

Q: You’ve worked with dancers all over but primarily in the United States. Are there distinct differences you’ll have to negotiate with the Paris dancers?
I think it’s the way they work, the daily life of these dancers, the way they approach different repertory, the amount of rehearsal. There’s such hierarchy in the company, such competition, a lot of stuff that has actually bogged down the enthusiasm and passion that should exist. So it’s going to be a little bit about changing their experience. Part of what I think is positive for the company is that I just stopped dancing three years ago—I want it to be the kind of place I would have dreamed of dancing.

Millepied’s first season begins September 1, with guest company Tanztheater Wuppertal performing Pina Bausch’s Two Cigarettes in the Dark; operadeparis.fr.