Benjamin Millepied on quitting Paris Ballet and his LA ‘love story’ with Natalie Portman

The choreographer blew into Paris Opera Ballet on a mission to shake things up. But two seasons later, he walked. Does the rebel of dance have any regrets? Plenty

I was always the Frog in America, says Benjamin Millepied, and then I was the American in Paris. It was naive of me not to realise how different the two worlds are and how differently the politics work. When he was appointed director of dance at the Paris Opera in 2014, the French-born choreographer was, in theory, returning to his native ballet culture. Yet the fact that hed spent all his professional life in the US first as a dancer with New York City Ballet, then as director of his own LA Dance Project had made him more American then he knew.

When he arrived in Paris with a sweeping programme of reform, Millepied found himself being criticised as an arrogant outsider, out of touch with French traditions and taste. However, making changes at Paris had been a prime condition of his taking the job. I had to feel that there was an honesty, an integrity, in the way I ran the company. I needed to build something that reflected the things I believed in, social as well as artistic issues, from A to Z.

When he realised how much resistance there would be, Millepied decided it wasnt worth battling on. Just 18 months after taking the post, he announced he would be leaving Paris to concentrate on his LA company, which had continued to operate during his absence. The company is now coming to Britain and, meeting Millepied ahead of their visit, its easy to see why he and Paris had initially seemed so workable a fit.

He looks and sounds entirely transatlantic. His casual black suit and sky blue loafers are matched by a cool hybrid accent of clipped Parisian vowels and American drawl. While cynics suggested that hed been hired primarily for his fundraising potential hes married to the actor Natalie Portman, whom he met on the set of Black Swan Millepied comes across as a man of passionate convictions, talking fluently about his vision for dance, his concern for its fragility, and his commitment to developing new economic models for its survival.

Benjamin Milliepied with his wife Natalie Portman in Cannes last year Photograph: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images
In 2012, when Millepied set up his LA company, hed wanted to create a platform for his own choreography, but he was also ambitious to build an organisation that could bend the old rules. In America, people are struggling to bring in audiences for dance. I wanted to create a new kind of organisation where you could be genuinely smart about the quality of work you put on, but also smart about the people who would support you.
Dance folds together all the art forms. At LA, we found brands who were very interested in sponsoring us because of our association with great contemporary artists and music.

When the offer came from Paris, however, Millepied felt it was an extraordinary opportunity. The company has such a great tradition its where ballet started. But I felt it had lost some sense of its heritage. As director, he wanted to update the repertory but also restore some of the qualities for which Paris has traditionally been famous: the distinctive musicality of its dancing, and the virtuosity of its pointe work. Just as importantly, he wanted to institute practical changes, which he believed were chronically overdue, such as the introduction of specialist physiotherapists to prevent and repair injury, the installation of sprung dance floors in studios, and the development of a social media department.

But Millepied didnt take into account the companys size and the weight of its traditions. Nor was he tactful about local sensibilities. In his rush to reform, some dancers complained of his abrasive directorial style while a section of the public complained that hed ditched too many beloved French classics for the sake of imported, Anglo-American choreography. He acknowledges that mistakes were made: I could have gone slower and I could have handled some issues differently. Certainly, when he announced his resignation, some commentators suggested his entire tenure had been a wilful car crash of cultures.

Harbor Me, part of LA Dance Projects triple bill at Sadlers Wells. Photograph: Andrea Stappert

In his defence, Millepied says the reaction against him was hugely exaggerated and was modest compared with complaints suffered by his predecessors. There were no letters sent to parliament asking for me to be removed, as there were in the time of Brigitte Lefvre, and I didnt have strikes like Nureyev.

Many dancers supported the changes he tried to implement, as did some of the public. Ticket sales outdid themselves during the last season. Most of the audience seemed very willing to go on this journey with me. Millepied is also convinced that, when he departs in July, he will leave a positive legacy: some awesome new ballets; a healthy budget (he raised a record 1m at the seasons opening gala); some practical improvements; and above all a more questioning culture from which his successor, Aurlie Dupont, can benefit.

But he does admit he was the wrong man for the job. The demands of running a company of 154 dancers, and orchestrating 170 performances in two theatres, were far heavier than hed imagined, and left him no time for choreographing his own work. While some criticised him for failing to stick at the job, he believed it was better for the company that he left as soon as he realised it wasnt working and essential for him. I could have stayed in Paris for another five years, or 10, but for the first time in my life I was afraid of losing my energy. If Id stayed I would have become a different person.

Watch a trailer for the LA Dance Project show at Sadlers Wells

Hes delighted to now be returning to LA. The city is a love story with me, the light, the crazy history of the place, and it feels full of possibilities. His LA is a city of writers and artists and, despite being married to Portman, he has little contact with the movie industry. My wife is very much a smart normal person who spends time with her amazing friends from college. You dont see her running around to parties. Its also a city that gives both of them a flexible quality of life, allowing them to devote time to their five-year-old son, Aleph, as well as their individual careers.

Millepied is relieved to now be focused entirely on his own company, for which he has enthusiastic plans. Over time, he wants to expand it to 20 dancers, making it versatile enough to perform classical and contemporary choreography and new works, as well as revivals of modern dance classics. Hes got plans, too, for film and digital projects, residences in cities around the world, and ideas for importing the experimental spirit of new opera and theatre-making into ballet.

Dance is such a fragile art form, he says, and I want to create an environment where the choreographers, composers and artists have all the time they need to make new work. I want to develop my dancers theres one woman showing real talent as a choreographer and I want to have artistic conversations with them. Its so different from Paris, where I used to get phone calls from the union at 10 at night. People find it hard to understand how I could leave such a prestigious organisation, but I love what this company has. It feels like a treasure.

LA Dance Project is at Sadlers Wells, London, 24-25 June.

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