Daphne Fernburger as Romeo and Naomi Van Brunt as Juliet in “Romeo & Juliet Suite” performed in Paris. Photograph by Julien Benhamou

New Romance

Benjamin Millepied on reworking “Romeo and Juliet” for contemporary audiences

Talk about a radical retelling of a classic story! In Benjamin Millepied’s “Romeo & Juliet Suite,” performed by members of LA Dance Project, the troupe he founded in 2012, there are three casts playing the title roles: a traditional heterosexual couple, two men, and two women. And, as if that weren’t a major departure from your standard issue “R & J,” this evening-length rendering has much of the action captured through projections from a Steadicam while the cast navigates myriad areas of the theater.

Indeed, Millepied’s take on the tragic love story is obviously working: The dance, which had two previous iterations at Walt Disney Concert Hall (2018) and the Hollywood Bowl (2019), had its world premiere at La Seine Musicale in Paris last year, selling out a series of 11 concerts. In her coverage for the New York Times, Roslyn Sulcas wrote, “For Millepied, a tightly condensed narrative is the motor for an expressive emotive physicality…”

That physicality will again be on view as Segerstrom Center for the Arts presents the American premiere of the work with three performances May 12-14 in Segerstrom Hall. But Millepied, 45, is no stranger to success: Born in Bordeaux, France to a decathlete father and a mother who was a professional dancer, he began his ballet training at the age of eleven before attending the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Lyon.

The youth then made his way to New York to attend the School of American Ballet, and, while there, the young dancer took part in the creation of a new ballet, “2 and 3 Part Inventions,” by Jerome Robbins. Invited to join the New York City Ballet in 1995, Millepied became a principal dancer with the company in 2001, performing a vast repertory of works by Balanchine and Robbins, as well as originating roles in works by a host of world-class choreographers such as Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon and Angelin Preljocaj.

It was also at City Ballet where Millepied began making choreographies: In 2002 he founded the Danses Concertantes (an erstwhile pick-up troupe in which he performed for about eight years); and from 2006-2007, he served as choreographer-in-residence at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, also making a solo, “Years Later,” for Baryshnikov himself.

Benjamin Millepied, self portrait.

In addition, Millepied’s works can be found in major dance companies worldwide, including at City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Mariinsky Ballet. But it was in 2010, when Millepied’s personal life and career merged into a story that might be likened to a Hollywood fairy tale. Making the dances for Darren Aronofsky’s award-winning film, Black Swan, as well as acting in the production, he met Natalie Portman, who snagged an Oscar for her role as the unstable ballerina, with the pair marrying two years later.

Since then, Millepied, whose honors include winning the 1994 Prix de Lausanne, as well as being made a 2010 Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture, was also director of the Paris Opera Ballet from 2014-2016. While at the prestigious company—and with his finger on the pulse of the art form—Millepied commissioned new works by such bold-faced names as William Forsythe, Wayne McGregor and Crystal Pite.

Making his home in Paris and the City of Angels while raising two children with Portman, Millepied continues to create works for LA Dance Project, as well as tour with the troupe. Keeping a rock star-like schedule, the multi-hyphenate also directed his first feature film, the recently released, “Carmen.” Loosely based on the story of Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera of the same name, the edgy work is a fusion of dance and drama, punctuated with an original score by three-time Oscar nominee, Nicholas Britell (Moonlight, Don’t Look Up).

Fjord Review had the opportunity to catch up with the über-busy Millepied by phone from Los Angeles. The conversation ranged from topics that included his approach to the Shakespearean classic and why it’s important to stage works by women, to his becoming more socially aware.

Were you particularly enamored with “Romeo & Juliet” growing up? Was it a kind of touchstone for you in the ballet canon, and did you ever want to dance Romeo?

It was funny, because it’s not something I was ever interested in choreographing for the theater. I started to think about it for movies, then started to think about a stage production that would involve live performance and live video.

Of course, there’s always a point in a dancer’s life, with a score that feels glorious and you want to dance to it. But I never did.

Why do audiences continue to swoon over, “Romeo & Juliet?” Is it the story, Prokofiev’s memorable music, or, that it can be, well, so dancerly?

I think people are drawn to it because the score is a score that stays with you. That’s impactful. Actually, when I was 13 or 14, I was very enivrant, which means being everything drunk about it.

What a great word—enivrant! And a lot of people are feeling enivrant about your casting: David Adrian Freeland Jr. as Romeo, Mario Gonzalez as Juliet; Peter Mazurowski as Romeo, Daisy Jacobson as Juliet; and the female duo, Daphne Fernberger as Romeo and Nayomi Van Brunt as Juliet. This approach seems more relevant than ever, considering that abortion rights are being abolished and same sex marriage is also under attack. Why did you decide on casting two gay couples and a straight duo in these iconic roles?

Because at the time, it felt that I had no rights to decide that it should be a man and a woman. Considering even the dancers in my company, or the world we live in, it was fair to represent love through different faces. That’s what we did, and it feels completely relevant and normal, to be honest.

It’s not a big statement, but it makes sense. In France, it was, in some ways, controversial in Paris [last] fall, but it’s not the way I approached it. It’s much simpler: I was doing what I think is right. It created conversations; you had people who came to see the show who didn’t know—children and parents, men and wives. It was complicated a little bit. But we sold out 35,000 seats, and it was a huge success. It was even brought up in a game on [French] television.

Los Angeles Dance Project in “Romeo & Juliet” by Benjamin Millepied performed in Paris. Photograph by Julien Benhamou

That’s so cool. Now, about the production. You pared it down to some 12 dancers, clad in Camille Assaf’s simple streetwear, with no real décor, no outraged parents and no Friar Lawrence. This is definitely not your mother’s “R & J.”

The story is distilled to the bare minimum, but you still understand, you know what it’s about, and you’re left with the most important components. That was my wish: to figure out how to strip it and make it modern, and make it something essentially people could fall in love with, get into, and have an emotional experience. That was the idea.

You also have video that really looks like cinema, but the way the production goes smoothly, it’s like in a live performance. These characters become cinema characters. It is very full. There is a world, there is a scenery, but it’s minimal. It’s how you use some components and use something really interesting with it.

You also whittled down the Prokofiev score, which, unfortunately will not be performed live at Segerstrom. So, what was your choreographic process? Music first, then steps?

My process was that I have to take the music and edit it. Basically, I first started with that—creating a selection that makes sense, and then really doing a dramatic journey. The pieces have great rhythm; it’s great dance music and it was fun to choreograph. It was really easy, I have to say, also because the music is so familiar. I really enjoyed that a lot.

I was fortunate to have seen both the Disney Hall and the Bowl performances, where you were behind the Steadicam, which LADP’s associate director Sebastien Marcovici will be operating in Costa Mesa, capturing the dancers from all sorts of intriguing angles, including close-ups, and locations. And adding to the multi-media aspect, there is also film footage projected onto a huge screen. How different will this production be, and what locations can we expect to see—at Disney Hall, for example, you choreographed the death scene in an elevator?

This is completely different than what you saw before. This is a full-fledged production; a stand-alone work. As for locations, I don’t know yet. We just have to go scout and figure it out the week before.

Los Angeles Dance Project in “Romeo & Juliet” performed in Paris. Photograph by Julien Benhamou

Wow, I guess you like to live dangerously, which, of course is emblematic of this production. Do you see yourself getting more political or more socially aware than before, and if so, why?

I do, because it’s also not necessarily that the work has to scream a kind of statement, but it’s the context around it. When it comes to social engagement, with the arts you have an opportunity to put some conflicts around it. People come to a show, but it doesn’t necessarily always change the way people leave and lead their lives.

It’s how I choose to present the work. Being an artist is definitely social engagement—it’s a social environment. You’re expressing something and creating an experience that people need to have today more than ever—a communal experience. I see the work as a way to approach life and being more engaged.

Hear, hear! I’ve been covering LA Dance Project since its inception and really admire the fact that you like taking risks, and that you’re making conscious efforts to stage works by women, including re-mounting, for example, “Kinaesonata,” which the late Bella Lewitzky made in 1970. Why is this important for you?

Frankly, women are really terrific choreographers. It’s a big no-brainer. These are three of the most important choreographers working today: Janie Taylor; Bobbi Jene Smith; and Madeline Hollander.

“Kinaesonata,” we did a while ago. And there are several works worth staging again. I love her work, Bella. I also love to curate, [and] it’s a pleasure to create great work to show new audiences. We showed that in Paris and it got great receptions.

And now there’s “Carmen,” which stars Oscar-nominated Paul Mescal (Aftersun), Melissa Barrera (In the Heights) and a Pedro Almodóvar favorite, Rossy de Palma. It’s another re-telling, as the story revolves around a Spanish-speaking gal named Carmen, who flees her home in Mexico after her mother’s murder, then, subsequently crossing into the States, she hooks up with a PTSD-suffering ex-marine. I found the film to be visually stunning and somewhat hypnotic. I also loved the dance elements—flamenco, krumping, the pas de deux between Barrera and Mescal. So, why this project as your first full-length feature?

“Carmen” was an opera of my childhood, and I wanted to have a basic tragedy that I could work with and reinvent. It was in me to work on this female protagonist and her freedom, and re-invent a woman that wasn’t some male fantasy that we murder at the end. I wanted to re-write it.

I understand that your re-thinking the story had something to do with the great theater director Peter Sellars?

The last time I saw him, he was at my house for dinner. He was pissed that I was telling the story “Carmen,” because he thought it was a terrible story. It was great to have someone that I respected so much be very open and tell it to me as it is. And he was completely right!

What kind of research did you do and why did you set it in present-day America?

A lot, especially because at first the film was going to take place in Mexico and L.A., and I found that there’s a Roma community, gypsies, Romani Mexicans. It’s interesting because they travel by truck and put on shows to make money. It’s a significant community and there was a wonderful anthropologist, and I met this community, [that] I was going to use in the opening of my movie. But it was a different film at the time [pre-Covid] and I didn’t want to recreate that.

Can we talk Nicholas Britell, who seems to be the hottest composer going, with his score to Succession making a great show that much greater. What was it like working with him, and I heard that you had said it was the closest thing to making a ballet? And—this inquiring mind wants to know: Do you watch Succession?

No! We talked about dance and music, and dance in musicals, around 2016. It was a journey working with him and creating a film with him that we’re both proud of. The truth is, the way I approached the film was starting with the music. The music influences the world, the way it affects ballet.

All told, it sounds as if you really enjoyed making “Carmen.”

Yes, it went well. It was a very, very special experience, an inspiring experience. I was surrounded by really terrific people—talent on every level. I generally loved everything about it. My whole goal is to get back on set at some point soon.

Before that happens, though, the dance world still beckons. I see that LA Dance Project is continuing its collaboration with the jewelers Van Cleef & Arpels. How important has this relationship been to the troupe, and what kinds of plans do you have for the 2023-24 season?

It’s been very significant, because they’ve been supporting us in the long run. So, it’s a big deal and they’re continuing to write that history in dance and being a part of new works, supporting new works. They’re a terrific brand; I’m very fond of them, very grateful to them.

Because of their funding, the first choreographer I brought on was Bobbi Jene Smith, and Jamar Roberts was also invited to make a work. He made a beautiful piece for us recently.

We’re working on the new season, and Bobbi, her husband Or Schraiber, and, of course, Janie Taylor will make a new work. It will be a lot more and we’ll tour.  

When you founded LADP in 2012, there were some in the dance community that weren’t happy about the fact that you didn’t hire any dancers from L.A., but the troupe has since been embraced.

It was funny, this idea of dancers that were not from L.A. People who come to L.A. dance from all over. We embrace the artists with money we raise. That was the sort of thing that you would think there’s no dance happening in L.A. I was aware there was [dance here], but I was also aware of how difficult it is.

I wish every single dancer and musician is 10 times more successful. It’s really hard. The organizations in L.A., there’s not enough helping each other. I feel like the venues here should do a lot more for the groups here, in general. There’s ways to present and support the companies in larger ways than it’s done. That’s what I think can be improved.

Where do you see yourself in the next five to 10 years?

I’d like LADP to expand its building, to eventually get a building of our own, with endowments, within the next five years. In Paris I am working on establishing the Paris Dance Project. It’s not a dance company, it’s an education program, a choreographic program, [and] it’s also producing dance residencies. I’m trying to create this great French-American cultural exchange.

That sounds fantastic, which brings me to the question of the state of contemporary ballet today. Is it healthy?

The state of ballet? In America, it’s tricky, because there’s not enough support. It could be if dance was supported through government, through the cities; we barely get city support here. Then it would make a difference. But people figure it out on their own here. That said, I think there’s talented choreographers all over.

Finally, what kind of advice would you give aspiring choreographers, dancers, and/or filmmakers?

Follow your dreams!                                                                                                             

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