"It feels strangely like it didn’t happen," said the choreographer and dancer Benjamin Millepied with a laugh from sunny California, reflecting on the largely less than bright year and a half he spent leading the Paris Opera Ballet. That stint may seem far away now that he's back in Los Angeles with his wife, Natalie Portman, whom he met on the set of Black Swan, but luckily for Millepied, it's been chronicled in Reset, a documentary which hit theaters in the U.S. this month.
Following the creation of Millepied's first ballet, which was outfitted by Iris Van Herpen and scored by his frequent collaborator, Nico Muhly, it's a visual feast of muscly closeups and ethereal, waifish dancers—not to mention Millepied's piercing blue eyes, at least when they're not hiding out on the Opera's roof. But the film's also an account of the frustrations of working with the notorious French bureaucracy and an age-old institution's age-old ideas, especially when it comes to issues like race. From the safe refuge of the West coast, Millepied looked back on his past frustrations, like fighting the world's oldest national ballet company to keep blackface off the stage, to his present ones, like Donald Trump.
How did the documentary first come to be?
You know, the filmmakers didn’t approach me; I actually really motivated myself to capture this moment. At the time, I didn’t know how long I would stay there, but I knew it was the beginning of an interesting time, and something might happen that’d be good to capture no matter what. In fact, I was talking to Netflix for a bit, but somehow we were getting too close to it being rehearsal time, and I went with these two directors—Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai.
Did you ever think twice about it once they got started filming?
I mean, yeah, because it’s annoying to have people around all the time. [Laughs.] There were times they couldn’t find me, but it was mostly on purpose. It’s a very big theater, and they didn’t really know their way around, so they’d want me somewhere I was not really expecting, and we’d both end up lost in the labyrinth of the Paris Opera.
Early on, you're teased in a meeting for wanting pretty basic technology like TV monitors. Did you really have that tech guy reputation, or was there anyone else who shared your attitude?
No, there absolutely wasn’t, and there really was a kind of backlash to my approach to tech, for sure. I’m actually the owner of all the social media accounts of the Paris Opera—there really were no social media accounts at the Paris Opera until I got there. I got the first full-time social media person hired there, and they ran their Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, but I actually installed the accounts and still have all the keys to them.
I guess there can’t be such bad feelings after your departure, then, if they haven’t taken them away yet.
Well, they can’t! [Laughs.] I actually created them—I’m the actual owner.
You also get pretty explicit in the film about your frustrations with the company’s lack of diversity, from calling it “absurd” to consider a black girl in a ballet a distraction to declaring you “have to shatter this racist idea.” Did you worry at all about the company's reaction to that? Did you already know you were leaving at that point?
At that point I was just doing what I could, because I was starting to realize how I was in a place that just wasn’t at the point of understanding the issues. It became a big deal, actually, after the documentary: we performed a ballet called “La Bayadère,” which is pretty much the Soviet, Rudolf Nureyev version of a 19th-century ballet, and which has a part called “Dance of the N—s Marching,” where the children are wearing blackface. So basically, from the start, I said, “Just so you know, we’re not going to do this—we’re going to call it the ‘Dance of the Children,’ and the children are just going to be, you know, their skin color, black or white.” Months went by and I didn’t hear anything about it, and so I went back and said the same thing at the office, and it became a huge issue, with a company meeting. You know, the directors are not racist; they’re not extreme right. For the most part, they’re sensitive artists, but that didn’t matter—it’s just something that they couldn’t understand. They couldn’t imagine a black family coming to the show—and they don’t really come, to begin with, which is part of why I really wanted to open up the opera house—and being offended by these children in this grotesque fashion. We did end up doing it as “Dance of the Children” after I put my foot down, but all the hurdles made me realize how the company was not in a place where I thought I could be there, be happy, make the changes I wanted, and realize my dreams. So the right thing to do was to go home.
Do you think any of the progress you started to make has remained?
I think it’ll take generations to realize that today, that’s the way things are supposed to be done. Listen, I could have spent my life there, and maybe if I had spent my life there, but that’s not how I wanted to spend my life. Those institutions, the Russians and the French, are just very old and the traditions are so deeply rooted, but it’s really not like that in America. We just have a different approach to ballet.
What have you enjoyed most about being back in L.A. and able to pursue your own projects?
It comes with its own share of difficulties, but mainly, there’s a kind of transparency and truth to things. I run my own project and my own career with people who I think enrich what I’m trying to do and I love as human beings and respect. It’s a very positive environment—not that there weren't also positive things in Paris. If you run a company, you have to fill the house and market and all these things, but it still should be associated with the great pleasure and passion [of dance.] You know, I’ve been working with the San Francisco Ballet, and our rehearsals have been perfect, and people have been so kind and so professional. Things don’t have to be done in pain.
What else have you been working on lately?
Really, since I got back in July, I’ve been focusing on the next two years of [Millepied's company] the L.A. Dance Project, getting the company to grow and develop in a positive way. We’re looking to going to get to a new stage in Los Angeles with more performances and more of a presence; build a significant education program; and grow our presence online, through digital platforms and online classes launching in the spring. And we’re doing a site-specific project in Marfa, Texas at the Chinati Foundation, and heading to New York for two weeks too. But I love L.A.; there are so many dancers, choreographers, companies, and directors. You feel like a visual artist in the ‘60s.
Given your concerns for diversity and community, how are you feeling about the inauguration?
You know, I watched Obama’s last press conference [on Wednesday] and it was sad. It’s a goodbye to how well he ran the country for eight years, but also to him as just a human being and example to society. I find him incredibly inspiring. His is a very hard act to follow, and I’m deeply saddened by this new president-elect, of course.
Have you found his election has motivated you at all with your work?
Absolutely. I’ve lived here for 20 years and I’m in the process of getting my citizenship, so I feel deeply connected to this country and want to be proactive, not just in the arts. I want to have a deeper impact in our community, with Los Angeles and children and schools. And engage in conversation with everyone—I think what happened was that we weren’t paying attention to people who needed to be paid attention to before, but you have to roll up your sleeves and have a conversation. That was our wakeup call.
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