There’s being ‘born to do it’, and then there’s Benjamin Millepied, who’s last name even means ‘a thousand feet’ in his native French. Millepied, who now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Natalie Portman and their two children, was born in Bordeaux and began ballet at age eight, instructed by his mother, a former ballet dancer. He joined the New York ballet in 1995, was promoted to soloist in 1998, and became a principal dancer in 2002, a position he held for the best part of a decade.
He’s since served as the director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet, and is perhaps best known for his starring role alongside Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman in the 2010 film, Black Swan. His upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet and his long-standing relationship with Van Cleef & Arpels has most recently inspired a collection of jewelry exploring that most famous of romantic tragedies.
The ballet will be performed at the Hollywood Bowl in May of next year, but in Paris, he unveils some of the cinematic film that he’s produced as part of the production’s process. Although he maintains that, while most of his life has been spent in America, he is still very French, there is a slight L.A. lilt in his French accent. As we walk around the room, viewing the film snippets and the jewelry, we discuss the journey so far.
Q: Romeo and Juliet, the Shakespeare play from the 16th century, has inspired so much over the last 400 years, like Tchikovsky’s orchestral piece, cinema like Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version, and Baz Luhrmann in 1996, and of course, West Side Story the musical and the ballet too. Why did you decide to reinterpret it this time?
A: I saw [Kenneth] MacMillan’s ballet as a kid, which I loved. And I was part of West Side Story with the New York City Ballet, I danced Tony, I danced some of the other Jets, and the love story, the romantic side of it always touched me. It’s universal. It ouches a lot of people.
Q: West Side Story was such a strikingly different interpretation of the play. Are you doing something more traditional?
A: No, this isn’t traditional. Yes, it’s the story of two people who live in a world where their love is impossible. But how do you retell that story in an environment that’s contemporary with characters that people can actually relate to? I wanted to explore where I could go with it, so the production will feature three couples: Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Romeo, and Juliet and Juliet.
Q: And what sparked the Van Cleef and Arpel’s conversation?
A: I’ve been working with them for some time, so when I mentioned that I was working on a contemporary adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, Nicolas [Bos] saw it as a perfect opportunity. Shakespeare’s masterpiece acts as the starting point for this new thematic collection, but also for a dialogue between disciplines involving high jewelry, dance, music and the visual arts.
Q: Why do you think disciplines like dance and music lend themselves so well to dialogue with jewelry?
A: For me, I think it’s very healthy as an artist to look at your craft as the craft of an artisan, to look at the ideas like constants; perfection that’s rooted in architecture and knowledge and structure and things you learn from the past and the people before you and the kind of classicism of it all. When you’re a choreographer, there’s geometry, symmetry, you know? I think it’s healthy to look at the work of a choreographer like an architect or a master jeweler. There’s a craft element that’s very similar. And both with ballet and high jewelry, there’s romance, passion. That kind of thing is so important to both.
Q: These snippets of film; are they part of the production? Or the process?
A: The production is really a combination of live performance and live cinema. There’s a ton of video in theater today so it’s nothing new, but the way I approach it is really making it feel like cinema, so even though it’s live too, it’s not prerecorded, I use the spaces to create scenes that allow me to tell the story in a way that feels better to me. It can be hard to represent certain things on stage, so if there are other environments that are helpful, lighting, the camera can move, it just becomes a different thing.
Q: You’ve collaborated a lot during your career. How would you say those collaborations have enriched performances you’ve worked on? Or how profound, important, or affecting has the fusion of these different mediums been?
A: I’m directing a feature film next year, an adaptation of Carmen, so I’m working with a lot of collaborators, and at the end of the day, I really am the one, as the director, who defines the vision for the film. However, everyone I bring on is immensely talented, and in every department I have to let them do their work, but also push them in a very specific direction. I think all these experiences commissioning work for ballet have helped me get to this moment, where I can actually do it, and form a circle, like something cohesive, which it has to be. Your color pallette, the camera you choose, the lens you choose – you create a look for your film, and in a way it’s pushing me to be more demanding in how I approach things for the stage, which is interesting. It’s taught me that you want to push people to deliver their best work, and their best work within a unified vision. It’s really fantastic. I just love the opportunity to work with really talented people.
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