The Artistic Director of L.A. Dance Project, Benjamin Millepied is a world-renowned dancer and choreographer. You might have seen him dancing with New York City Ballet, or more recently on screen. In Black Swan with Oscar-winning actor and wife Natalie Portman or as the primary focus of the dance documentary RESET as he embarks on a new ballet creation as the artistic director of the oldest dance company in the world – Paris Opera. Today, Benjamin Millepied dedicates his time running the successful dance company in Los Angeles, creating and commissioning new choreography for the stage and screen.
I am curious to understand what inspires Benjamin Millepied to create choreography and what he thinks of ballet in this day and age. In a world consumed by technology, how does one grow from such a strong and established tradition of ballet to reach new audiences? Dance has witnessed an exponential growth in the last decade, and Benjamin Millepied brings forward a contemporary agenda with ballet and state-of-the-art-technology. In this interview, we discuss the work with Paris Opera, as well as the upcoming production coming to Singapore for the first time with da:ns festival.
What do you think about what ballet means in this day and age?
Ballet is an incredibly rich, resilient art form that manages to stay relevant throughout the years, and it means different things to different people. For me, it is partly about creating moments of beauty and transcendence that can transport people and renew their spirits. In this age of social media and the internet, ballet can be a powerful reminder of what the human body is capable of without technology; the dancers inspire us with their extraordinary grace and agility and remind us of the creativity and expressive potential inside everyone.
How do we keep moving forward when the traditional language of ballet is so strong?
Sometimes constraint is an incredible source of creativity. The traditional language of ballet is strong, but it has always evolved and changed over the years. It is like language – we have basic vocabulary and rules of grammar that give us structure, mastering those basics enables us to create new styles and forms. The traditional language of ballet gives us a starting place and then we move forward from there – what does movement look like now, in the 21st century, how are our bodies different – or the same – how is our world different? We can look at these basic traditions and learn from them, then alter, embellish or revisit them to see what we can say about the current moment.
How do we let people see dance in our modern lives when everyone is so plugged in technology?
Technology is a great tool to help people see dance. People probably see more dance – and different types of dance – now than ever before. I think it is great to have so much dance visible in different media because it gives people a taste of it. No matter where you are you can be exposed to dance and, hopefully, be inspired not only to seek it out live but to make it, to have more dance in your life! In fact, we’re launching a project called the L.A. Dance Workout where we’ve taken the company’s choreography and turned them into workouts that you can do at home. At the moment, we have so much new technology – and more every day – so people are very obsessed with it. But dance has been around since the very beginning, and the joy of dancing never goes away. As long as people see dance, they will be inspired to start dancing, and so they will develop a desire to experience it live and in person.
Looking back five years how has your creative process evolved since returning to LA from Paris Opera? I learned a lot from working at Paris Opera, but not necessarily just about choreography. I learned about the structures that enable or inhibit creativity, I learned about the value of tradition and the challenges that traditional institutions can face when trying to be more creative and adventurous. Since returning to Los Angeles and giving my full attention to L.A. Dance Project, I have developed a more instinctual, improvisational, nimble creative process; I feel more comfortable just experimenting with the company, exploring possibilities, trying out ideas – I’m less concerned that it has to be perfect the very first time. Los Angeles is more relaxed, and one good part of that is a kind of freedom to take risks creatively. Also, L.A. is a very culturally rich city with so many different types of people, food, art, music, traditions alongside an incredible artistic scene, I find it very inspiring and liberating.
How do you deal with insecurity in your creative process, if any?
I know this may sound immodest but I don’t have insecurity in my creative process. I have insecurity in lots of other places, or when the finished work is shared with an audience, but when I’m in the rehearsal studio or making any kind of art, the flow of creativity is too intoxicating and thrilling. Why be insecure? The worst that can happen is that you don’t like how it turns out and you start over again.
How did you select the works that are coming to Singapore?
It is always difficult to select a program for any venue. In this case, it is our first time in Singapore and we really wanted to share a range of work from across our repertoire. Hopefully, there is something for everyone and the audience will enjoy the different variations of style within the program. I’m quite passionate about dance history, which can be very fragile. Because dance is performed, not written down, it is easy to lose the great dances to being forgotten or neglected. So the Martha Graham duets are very close to my heart, a way of honoring her legacy and keeping her spirit and work alive, work that is rarely performed or seen by a wide audience.
L.A. Dance Project also commissions work from rising stars of dance and Murder Ballades is a piece we commissioned from the very exciting young choreographer Justin Peck. He really pushed the company in some interesting ways and I think the piece is very strong, showcasing not just Justin’s creativity and unique sensibility but also the versatility of L.A.D.P.’s dancers.
What would you like to see more of in dance today?
I would like to see more dance in general. I think if people dance more in their personal lives – social dancing, dancing for exercise as a workout, going out to a club – then they will want to go see dance in the theatre more often. They will see that dance is already in their lives and that attending a dance concert is a very rewarding experience. It is always nice to know how to “appreciate” dance but really you don’t need to have formal education in dance to enjoy it. I guess one thing I would like to see more of in dance is a sense of inclusion. Let’s look at all the different types of dance and see how they connect with each other and are alike, rather than always trying to make a difference between ballet or hip-hop or contemporary dance.
You create choreographies for the screen, stage, and location work – site-specific as well as dance to be viewed online. How come your attention is so distributed across these different ways of delivering dance performances?
I believe that dance is more than just an art form – it is a way of being in the world, it is a lifestyle. Dance is something that exists in every culture everywhere around the world. It may look different, but dancing is a fundamental part of society. And I believe once you start to look at the world from the perspective of dance, you will see dance in everything. So in a way, the choreographies I create are not about making dances in specific places or specific mediums, but in revealing the dance – or possibility of dance – that is already there.
Do you explore pleasure in your choreography or only in dance? What’s the importance of pleasure to you?
Is this a trick question? Pleasure can be so many things and take so many forms. Whether I’m the one dancing or I’m choreographing for other people to dance, it is pleasurable. I think most people experience pleasure when they are doing something that they love with people that they respect and admire, whose company they enjoy. People are social beings and creative expression is a birthright, so I think we all find making things together pleasurable!
I guess a simpler answer is that pleasure is very important to me, but not in the sense of indulgence or decadence. The pleasure of being healthy and creative, the pleasure of finding joy in life, the pleasure of sharing that with friends and family. Dancing is just one part of the whole.
What inspires you to make choreography still?
Why does a bird sing or a fish swim? I know this sounds simplistic, but it is just who I am. I am a dancer and choreographer. When I see a film, I respond in my body; when I read a book or listen to music, I respond in my body. I am a very curious and interested person, there is always something to discover in the world and be inspired by – and when I discover something that excites me, that activates my imagination, the first thing I want to do is make a dance about it.