Benjamin Millepied, Out with New Ballet Documentary, Says of Trump Inauguration: “You Have to Roll Up Your Sleeves”
The choreographer, dancer, and husband to Natalie Portman looks back at his time at the world’s oldest national ballet company, which is now at the center of the documentary Reset.
“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.
Meet the Women Who Are Making the Women’s March on Washington Happen
The executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, Linda Sarsour — a Brooklyn native, mother of three, and now one of the national co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington — has been working at the crossroads of civil rights, religious freedom, and racial justice for 15 years. Once an aspiring English teacher, she joined the Arab American Association in its infancy, succeeding founder Basemah Atweh, her mentor, as executive director with Atweh’s death in 2005. “I grew out of the shadow of 9/11,” Sarsour said. “What I’ve seen out of bad always comes good, is that solidarity and unity, particularly amongst communities of color who feel like they’re all impacted by the same system.”
Tamika D. Mallory’s roots in community organizing and activism extend back to her early childhood: her parents were two of the earliest members of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network nearly 30 years ago, an organization for which Mallory went on to act as executive director. But it wasn’t until the death of her son’s father 15 years ago that Mallory found her niche in civil rights and flung herself headlong into activism. Now, she’s one of the four national co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington, balancing organizing the march with her day job as a speaker and civil rights advocate. “We’re centering this march by having women to be at the helm of it, to organize it, and to be most of the speakers,” she said. “At the same time I think it’s very important that we never forget the fact that our men, our brothers, our young brothers particularly need this support.”
Fashion entrepreneur Bob Bland was nearing the due date of her second daughter, now seven weeks old, when she posted a Facebook event calling for a march on Washington during inauguration weekend. Nine weeks later, she’s one of four national co-chairs at the heart of the Women’s March on Washington — where she’ll march with her infant, her six-year-old daughter, and her 74-year-old mother. “We’re activating people who were previously content with sitting behind their computer and posting on Facebook,” she said.
For Carmen Perez, executive director of Harry Belafonte’s Gathering for Justice and one of the four national co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington, work permeates everything else: “There’s no real life outside of activism,” she said. Just over two decades ago, Perez’s elder sister was killed — the anniversary of her burial coincides with the march, and with Perez’s birthday — and navigating the justice system motivated her to work with incarcerated young men and women, first as a probation officer and then with The Gathering, operating on the intersection of race, criminal justice, and immigration. “Oftentimes, when I’m in spaces, I am the only Latina and I have to speak a little louder for my community to be part of the conversation,” she said. “The work that I do around racial justice, it’s not just about Latino rights. It’s also about human rights.”
Californian ShiShi Rose, 27, moved to New York a year ago to develop her activism and writing. She previously worked at a local rape crisis center and assisted in educating therapists and counselors before turning her focus more squarely towards race, first via her Instagram account and then through public speaking engagements and writing. As part of the national committee for the Women’s March on Washington, Rose runs the group’s social media channels, from Instagram (where she has a substantial following) to Facebook. “Women encompass everything,” Rose said. “If you can fight for women’s rights, you can fight for rights across the board.”
A law student-turned-actress-turned-activist, Sarah Sophie Flicker was born in Copenhagen, the great-granddaughter of a Danish prime minister who has been credited with bringing democratic socialism to Denmark. She grew up in California before moving to New York to found the political cabaret Citizens Band, eventually joining the production company Art Not War. “Once you start breaking it all down, you realize the most vulnerable people in any community tend to be women,” she said. “All our issues intersect, and something that may affect me as a white woman will doubly affect a black woman or a Latina woman or an indigenous woman. So when we talk about a women’s movement, we need to be talking about all women.”
Vanessa Wruble, a member of the national organizing committee, is the uber-connector of the Women’s March on Washington. She’s also the founder and editor of OkayAfrica, a site connecting culture news from continental Africa with an international audience. It was Wruble who first messaged Bland on Facebook to connect her with the women who would eventually become her co-chairs: “She said, Hey, you know, you need to center women of color in the leadership of this so it can be truly inclusive,’” Bland recalled. Within a day, they were meeting for coffee; now, they’re marching together in one of the largest demonstrations in support of a vast array of causes in United States history.
Paola Mendoza, artistic director of the Women’s March on Washington, is a Colombian-American director and writer whose work has focused on immigrant experiences, particularly those of Latina women. “Women have never convened this way in our lifetime,” Mendoza said of the march, “and it’s being led for the first time ever by women of color.”
Janaye Ingram, who Michelle Obama once described as an “impressive leader,” is Head of Logistics for the March, in addition to being a consultant for issues like civil, voting, and women’s rights in Washington D.C.
Cassady Fendlay, communications director for the Women’s March on Washington, is a writer and communications strategist whose clients include The Gathering for Justice — the organization helmed by Women’s March national co-chair Carmen Perez. As the spokeswoman for the march, Fendlay is tasked with acting as its mouthpiece, ensuring its message is accurate, unified, and coherent.
In addition to being a producer of the march, Ginny Suss is the Vice President of Okayplayer.com and the President and co-founder of OkayAfrica — she does video production for both. Her background in the music industry runs deep, and she’s worked closely with The Roots for the past 13 years, serving as their Tour Manager for some time. She’s also produced large outdoor events like The Roots Picnic, Summerstage, Lincoln Center Out Of Doors, and Celebrate Brooklyn — vital experience for organizing a march of this size.
Last year, Nantasha Williams ran for the New York State Assembly as a representative of the 33rd district — which encompasses a region just east of Jamaica, Queens. Though she lost to Democrat Clyde Vanel, she’s putting her organizing skills to good use in the aftermath of the election, working on the logistics team for the march and assisting national co-chair Tamika Mallory.
When Alyssa Klein isn’t managing the various social media accounts for the Women’s March, she’s writer and Senior Editor at OkayAfrica, the largest online destination for New African music, culture, fashion, art, and politics. Based in both New York City and Johannesburg, Klein’s passion is movies and television, and has made it her profession to highlight creatives of color in both industries. Juggling social media is no easy side project, however. The Women’s March has approximately 80,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter, plus a over 200,000 on Facebook.
Shirley Marie Johnson is the March’s head administrator for Tennessee, as well as an author, poet, and singer. Primarily, though, she’s an activist and advocate for those who are victim to domestic violence, a cause that’s not only her focus at the March, but in her day-to-day life through her group Exodus, Inc., which aids those affected by rape, human trafficking, and other abuse.
Born in Shanghai, Ting Ting Cheng studied human rights at the University of Cape Town — and became an award-winning Fulbright scholar to South Africa — before heading to New York, where she’s now a criminal defense attorney at the Brooklyn Defender Services. All that’s no doubt come in handy for her role as Legal Director of the March.
Heidi Solomon is one of the three co-organizers for the Pennsylvania chapter of the Women’s March. Although she doesn’t have a long background in activism, Trump’s election moved her to take action, and she’s helped rally approximately 6,000 people from her home state.
Deborah Harris is a grassroots organizer and feminist self-help author who lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, and served as a community activist for 10 years in the fields of fashion, healthcare, at risk youth, and supportive women’s relations.
As Illinois’ state representative for the Women’s March, Mrinalini Chakraborty has taken the lead in coordinating the Chicago-area charge, organizing bus rides for well over a thousand women and other supporters. She’s also on the National Committee and is a coordinator for all 50 states coming to D.C.. And that’s in addition to her day job: She’s a graduate teaching and research assistant at the University of Illinois at Chicago for anthropology, not to mention a student and a dedicated food blogger.
After earning her Ph.D in psychology, Dr. Deborah Johnson is now studying social work at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa — and making sure she stands up for both her and her daughter’s rights at the March, which she’s helping lead the way to for other Oklahomans.
Renee Singletary is an organizer, mother of two, wife of one, marketing consultant, and certified herbalist living and working in Charleston, South Carolina.
A yoga instructor, theater graduate, and local organizer, South Carolina native Evvie Harmon has brought her skills and energy to the march as its global co-coordinator alongside Breanne Butler. Together, they facilitate partner marches and local organizers around the world, bringing the whole thing into synergy.
Learn the ABCs with Fabrice Calmels, Model and World’s Tallest Ballet Dancer: