A Conversation with Choreographer Benjamin Millepied

Photo: Mike Peters

Benjamin Millepied

Taking a break from rehearsing for the October 25 opening of his new work, Moving Parts, Benjamin Millepied, choreographer and star of Black Swan and former New York City Ballet principal dancer, discussed dance, choreography, and his new dance company, LA Dance Project, in a conversation with Professor Neil Baldwin, director of Montclair State University’s Creative Research Center, and students in the Alexander Kasser Theater lobby on October 24.

Arranged by Peak Performances at Montclair State University and The Office of Arts and Cultural Programming, the event gave students the opportunity to hear firsthand about the artist’s thoughts on a wide range of topics including his vision for his new company, his background, the advice he had for future choreographers, and what it was like to work on Black Swan.

“It was great,” Millepied said about working on the film. “It’s interesting to work in different fields and especially to be brought in to be in the service of someone else’s vision. I was lucky to work with [film director Darren Aronofsky] who is really a visionary and my job was to deliver exactly what he needed.”

The Bordeaux, France-born Millepied first studied dance with his mother, a former modern dancer, then at the Conservatoire National de Lyon and the School of American Ballet, the official school of the New York City Ballet (NYCB). He became a principal dancer at the NYCB in 2001 and danced featured roles in the works of legendary choreographers such as George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Peter Martins.

After an acclaimed career and multiple dance and creative awards, Millepied retired from the NYCB in 2011 and went on to choreograph works, direct films, and direct the musical staging for the La Jolla Playhouse’s production of Hands On a Hardbody. He formed the LA Dance Project in 2012 and premiered Moving Parts in Los Angeles in September before bringing the production to Montclair State.

“I was really nervous in LA when we premiered our program because I had this audience that I didn’t know yet,” he confessed. “We premiered it in the Music Center—it’s a house like Lincoln Center, so there’s an audience that basically only goes to see Swan Lake.” Millepied added that the work was generally well received: “We had both cheers and boos—it was great!”

In response to a student’s question, Millepied talked about his early years spent in Senegal, where his mother was teaching, and about how in Africa, everybody danced. “There was this kind of innate joy of moving to music and it was a very natural thing,” he said noting that his own dancing went from African, to modern, to ballet—an unusual progression for a dancer. “I had a completely reverse order,” he laughed.

“That’s actually why it took me so long to come to ballet because dance was something that I just enjoyed—it was like walking; it was like breathing. The idea of turning it into something disciplined really scared me,” he said. “But when I realized there was this whole athletic side to [ballet], I thought, ‘well that could be fun!’ ”

According to Millepied, he did not suddenly develop an interest in choreography but had always been drawn to it. “It was a creative impulse,” he said. “I was making little dances when I was five. I remember taking songs and I would choreograph them in my room. Choreography was always something I knew that I would do.”

See photos from the event at Flickr.com.