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Benjamin Millepied on the Los Angeles Dance Project and Why He’s Bored With Ballet

Photo: Amy Graves/WireImage

Benjamin Millepied knows ballet — after 16 years with the New York City Ballet, he went on to choreograph for major companies (and Black Swan) and served two years as Director of Dance at the Paris Opera Ballet — and he says he’s bored with most of it. His company, the Los Angeles Dance Project, is performing at the Joyce Theater through June 25, and via a phone call from Paris he explained his frustrations with ballet, how LADP is different, and why popular work is not always good work.

One way Los Angeles Dance Project breaks with the traditional ballet company is its structure. Usually a company will divide its members into ranked tiers — principal, soloist, and a corps de ballet — but you don’t.
It’s a small company of twelve dancers, eventually twenty, but I want everybody to be capable of being a soloist or a corps de ballet in the ensemble in the ballet. I don’t see the need to make ranks in the company for the work that we do, since we don’t do the classical ballet repertory that would require a corps de ballet of sixteen swans. And I don’t want a uniform corps — I look for people who are different from one another, that have something unique. I don’t want everybody to look or be the same. I look for wonderful dancers that have something unique to bring and that also means people from different cultures. Because that’s what I find interesting about a company of dancers — the energy of every dancer and their unique personalities are what makes performance exciting.

I noticed on your site you have an audition call out for dancers who, if classically trained, can dance on pointe.
I’m actually hiring many dancers this fall to complete the company, with dancers coming from ballet companies, actually — San Francisco Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet. We’re going to start to have dancers who can also do pointe work in the company. It doesn’t mean that everyone, every girl in the company, is on pointe, but having some dancers who are trained in pointe work allows me to have a larger repertory. I don’t want to reduce the potential works we can dance, basically.

You’re working with Janie Taylor and Carla Korbes, two great ballet dancers who recently retired.
I’m completely attracted to the idea of working with retired dancers; some dancers retire early and are in fantastic shape. Carla and Janie still have a lot to say and want to, and I’m happy to give them an outlet.

What have you found the L.A. audience to be like? Do you find that they’re more responsive to certain programming than others?
They’re really hungry and excited — our performances are like rock concerts. There is such enthusiasm. It’s wonderful. There’s a lot of young people in this city who are interested in culture, and so it’s really fun for us to start in a place with no strong precedents for dance programming. It’s not like New York, at Lincoln Center, where people have certain expectations about the types of dance performances and dancers they’re going to see. Building this from scratch has its challenges, but it’s been wonderful. I’ve loved the audiences that we’ve had.

Ballet is so deeply rooted in tradition, from programming to costuming to music. How are you moving the form into a more modern, inclusive era?
I want to go against trend. I want to be able to show work that isn’t necessarily for everybody or the most popular work. That’s what’s gonna keep me very happy. There’s a limited number of programs in a repertory season and so directors feel pressured to put on work that’s going to be popular. But popular doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t. And just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good. That’s why I want to have the freedom to present work that is unusual or unexpected. Because I also really believe you have to have artistic integrity, you can’t put anything onstage that doesn’t have real integrity. You have to challenge your audience and you have to be methodical. My work in Paris made me really realize that people do respond to this sort of approach. I was taking that audience on a new journey. People start to get it. And they start to come back and they now know that you’re presenting them with new, different experiences. That’s really what motivates so much of how I run LADP. There’s been less and less risk taken with choreographers at dance companies. Really. It’s dramatic. Even with the music used, which is more easy listening than anything nowadays. When’s the last time you heard really challenging music at a ballet performance? And I want to revive older works every year, like we did with Merce Cunningham. I want to give opportunities to choreographers that aren’t necessarily well-known.

That feeds into the conversation taking place about the lack of female choreographers or representation of works by females. As the artistic director of your company, how do you address this issue?
I’m really trying to find and showcase the talent that is out there. I’m looking for younger choreographers. And so right now I’m looking at a lot of work. As a director, it’s your responsibility to give choreographers the right opportunity, and you have to drive them in the right direction with the work they’re gonna make and give them the rehearsal time they need. Next year, we’re doing work by a female choreographer who hasn’t been on the kind of trendy lists of choreographers. But, yeah, I seek it out. It takes some effort. That’s really all.

Ultimately, the problem is with the nature of classical ballet. In the contemporary dance world, there’s a ton of female choreographers. Some of the most successful modern dance choreographers have been women. And very honestly, the work of choreographers like Pina Bausch, for example, these works are by very, very smart women, who use narrative and draw from literature.

It’s not a coincidence that women have been drawn to contemporary dance, because I think ballet has been very weak for a long, long time. There’s very little ballet that I like. I’m not interested in most of what’s happening in ballet. And so I think that women have been drawn to contemporary dance because it’s a more interesting field where you can see more interesting work. It draws upon more fields of art, there are more diverse influences. I think the problem with ballet, in general, is its insularity and the education that results from that. You certainly can make great dancers who know only ballet, there are fantastic dancers who have no education. They can be the most fantastic, musical, intelligent dancers, but they’re not necessarily cultured, just gifted.

But the thing is, the field needs people who have knowledge and experience that draw from beyond the ballet world. You need leaders that have larger artistic breadth and broader visions. If you think of opera directors and the worlds that they’re creating on stage, it goes so much farther than, say, the conventional Sleeping Beauty production that hasn’t really changed at all.  I think that ballet’s had a problem a problem with education within the form and with the people who are tasked to move the art form further. They need hands in many pots. I think of Balanchine, who read consistently, or Lincoln Kirstein [co-founder of the New York City Ballet], who organized art exhibits and showcases in New York. Those things make a difference. I love dance, I don’t just love ballet. And I want the company to be a home for all the works that we don’t see, that aren’t done; all these pieces of great American modern dance. There are so many wonderful works that can be revived and seen alongside new work.

Benjamin Millepied on Why He’s Bored With Ballet