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Making Many Ballets

Choreographer Benjamin Millepied

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

November 2008 -- Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle, Washington

We caught up with the busy Benjamin Millepied in between his rehearsals at PNB’s spacious and lively Seattle studios where he was creating a new ballet for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “New Works” November 2008 program.

We’d like to hear about your new ballet for PNB.  Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got started making dances.

I was born in France in 1977 and we moved to Africa when I was quite young.  My mother was a dance teacher and I danced around the house while growing up, took some modern dance classes, then switched to and started ballet at 11.  We had moved back to France and my mother had hired a teacher for her studio in Bordeaux.  I enjoyed watching this new teacher’s classes and began taking from her.  I took the Boys’ Class and also had a chance to do some “super” work [ed: supernumerary] in the opera house.

We decided that I should audition for the conservatory in Lyon – where my older brother was a flutist – where I stayed for three years.  I later auditioned for and was accepted by School of American Ballet, where Stanley Williams was my main teacher.

I began making dances for the other students at my mother’s school while I was still quite young and really enjoyed it.  I asked Peter (Martins) for opportunities and he said “yes.”  I currently have an upcoming season at the Joyce and have put it totally together – financially, administratively, and artistically.

Please describe your new ballet for PNB.

For “3 Movements” I had to consider how much preparation and rehearsal time I’d have, as well as how familiar I might be with the dancers.  It’s an 18-minute work to a minimalist score by Reich and each movement is quite different from the others.  It uses 16 people – I wanted to make something strong to show off the group.  The structure of the score was my inspiration to make the piece.

What is your creative process?

I made everything in the studio and was not collaborative in this case.  The first movement has layers of sound and the movement quality makes it work.  It was a fun project and the company looks great.

And the design elements?

Brad Fields is the lighting designer, the costumes were designed by my girlfriend, and the sets were designed here in the shop – everything is quite good.

Who and what are some of the influences on your work?

Music is first – what ideas it gives me.  I find that I’m becoming more classical as I progress – and I’m only 31!  I try to find the best ideas and have learned to not to get too attached to my initial ideas, as these may need to be changed.

Certainly Balanchine, Robbins, Cunningham (in Lyon), African dance, Limon, Preljocaj, and Bigonzetti have been some of the principal influences, choreographically, on me.

Expand on your season at the Joyce...

It’s going to be an evening of Brahms, Ravel, and Chopin.  I believe the horizon looks bright for new opportunities.  Expectations of dance are very different in New York, London and Russia – and certainly very different from France and Germany.

I try to focus on finding my own voice in movement and content.  How steps are put together has become more important to me.  I love working with groups now – before it was difficult making large, group dances, but a sense of ease has just developed through my work here at PNB.  I use a group to create images and use them in more complex ways.  This means that I have to be more prepared, and when I am, it opens up more opportunity to make the style more interesting.  “3 Movements” has a huge number of changing stage patterns.

What do you see in your future?

I couldn’t do without choreography.  I’ll be starting on the Chopin for the Joyce season next week.  His music is some that I respond to the most, with both my grandfather and father being pianists.  It’s for five couples who spin out subtle stories.  I’m a choreographer who also checks for and reads the reviews, as I find them interesting and always learn something from them, even if it’s just a different point of view.

It’s important to keep open to new ideas and other views about one’s own work.

What might be some personal things you’d like readers to know about you?

I like to collect furniture and art – I got a great painting of a bullfight here at a flea market.  It’s by Leona White, an artist that Lincoln Kirstein used to promote in the ‘50s.  I try to invest myself in the biographies of the composers.  I can read a score reasonably well!

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