If everything goes as planned, 2019 is going to be an exciting year for French dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied. Early next year he is slated to launch a project that he’s been working on for two years: the adaptation of Bizet’s opera “Carmen” as a full-length cinematic musical in a contemporary setting.
It is going to be a political film in which the Gypsy femme fatale is an illegal immigrant who crosses the border from Mexico into the United States in the hope of finding a better future. “She is a woman who is looking for freedom, for what any human being deserves. And she sees men who create borders, who create borders around women – it’s kind of a metaphor for this sort of self-destruction of America,” Millepied told Haaretz ahead of his visit to Israel this week.
This Saturday, Sunday and Monday the L.A. Dance Project, of which he is a founder and artistic director, will be performing three works in Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Center: two by Millepied and one from the repertoire of Martha Graham. Israel – where Millepied lived with his wife, American film star and director Natalie Portman while she was directing “A Tale of Love and Darkness”– is of special importance to him, he says, and not just because his wife has Israeli roots. He speaks admiringly about Israeli dance creators, mentioning the Batsheva Dance Company and Ohad Naharin (“he is one of the major choreographers of our time ”), Sharon Eyal and Roy Assaf, from whom he commissioned a work for the L.A. Dance Project.
“It’s a very meaningful place to me and a very strong place for dance. It’s nice to be coming here,” says Millepied, adding that there is a “cut through the crap quality” that perhaps helps make it a dance superpower. He says that some of his favorite choreographers are Israelis and that a lot of the most interesting work in dance is being done by Israeli creators. Millepied, of course, has a complex relationship with the country. Portman sparked a scandal when she announced in April that she would not come to Israel to accept the Genesis Prize (a $1 million award given annually to Jewish people who have attained recognition and excellence in their fields). “Recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel,” her representative said at the time.
Millepied refuses to answer questions about his wife. But he is unequivocal about appearing in Israel. Like many artists, he has been asked by the BDS movement to boycott Israel.
“Yes, there are emails and messages,” he says. “But frankly, this is what we need more of everywhere, more art. And I’m not going to stop performing art in any place in which it’s needed. I’m not in the business of presenting less art – I’m in the business of giving more of something that I really believe in, and in as many places as I can. I have no reason not to bring the company to Israel.”
“Carmen,” under his direction, is being jointly produced by Dimitri Rassam (“The Little Prince”) and Helen Estabrook (“Whiplash”). As Variety magazine noted, his other collaborators in the work come from the top of their fields, among them the Oscar-winning composer Nicholas Britell, who will be responsible for the soundtrack, and cinematographer Darius Khondji (“Midnight in Paris,” “The Lost City of Z”). Millepied, who will have his directorial debut with “Carmen,” will also choreograph the dance numbers.
The film’s Don Jose will be a border inspector who pursues her, but then falls in love with her. The film will address questions of striving for freedom in the face of impassable obstacles, women’s attempts to free themselves from obstacles placed by men, and power and control vs. rebellion.
This is not the first time that Millepied has been involved in cinema. He burst into the world’s consciousness in 2009 as the choreographer of the movie “Black Swan,” in which he also played star Natalie Portman’s dance partner. The two fell in love and married, and today they have two children. But Millepied was on the rise, at least in the dance world, even before that. He was a prominent dancer with the New York City Ballet as a young man, and created several dance works for the company. He was also a model and appeared in ads for Air France, Club Monaco, Yves Saint Laurent, and more.
But his interest in cinema has grown over the years and can be seen in his dance work, mainly with the L.A. Dance Project, of which he is a founder and artistic director. In 2015, for example, he uploaded to YouTube the beautiful video “Reflections,” which includes choreography filmed against the backdrop of Los Angeles. A few weeks ago, he also uploaded “Chaconne,” a video that’s a fragment of a work on Bach’s musical processes.
Millepied, 41, is a native of Bordeaux, France and spent part of his childhood in Senegal. His mother was an African dancer and his father was a sports coach. He started to dance when he was seven and at 13 he joined the Dance Academy in Lyon. In 1993, when he was 15, he received a scholarship from the New York City Ballet and left for the United States.
In 2002 Peter Martins, the ballet’ company’s director, gave him the opportunity to create dances. His works were almost always short and meant for a limited number of dancers; he also created dances for other companies, including a solo for Mikhail Baryshnikov in 2006. Baryshnikov is a name that comes up frequently when reflecting on Millepied; like him, the legendary dancer also had relationships with famous women and had an artistic impact far beyond the world of dance, including in cinema.
In 2011, Millepied moved to Los Angeles, a city that was certainly not considered a dance center. He founded the L.A. Dance Project with his friend Dimitri Chamblas. From the start, the troupewas meant to be based on an old-fashioned modern dance repertoire, such as works from the early periods of Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp, among others.
In 2013, the Paris Opera Ballet invited him to serve as it dance director. Millepied accepted the offer – after all, it is one of the oldest, most respected, and well-known companies in the world – but his work in opera did not last long. In 2016 he resigned and returned to Los Angeles.
A documentary about his time in Paris captured him looking frustrated and silent. When asked about it in a telephone interview, he said that it was a fantastic experience but not where he wanted to put his energy.
“I wanted to focus on my expression as an artist and wanted to create an organization that is new and capable of dealing with this moment in time and that is long lasting.
“The Paris Opera, as wonderful as it is, was created 200 years ago and is much the same,” he says. “To change and to create something that is important in dance and art, major changes needed to happen that I think never could happen.”