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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 10 FEBRUARY 2016 — To the surprise of many, Benjamin Millepied, the new artistic director of the Paris Opera ballet, resigned from his post last week. Breaking his six-year contract, the 38-year-old director was returning to the U.S. for "personal reasons". Appointed by General Director, Stéphane Lissner, in November 2014, with the aim of bringing "new blood" to the company, the appointment seemed a gamble from the beginning. Millepied, noted for his choreography and in particular for his lovely pas de deux, had had no experience of directing such a large troupe of dancers and had perhaps miscalculated the enormous amount of administrative work which left him little time for his choreography.
After entering the Conservatoire of Lyon, he went to New York at the age of 16 where he eventually became principal dancer of the New York City Ballet. Leading his career in the U.S., he knew neither the French dancers, (an unruly lot, as Patrice Bart told me), nor the repertoire, being unfamiliar with the works of French choreographers such as Lifar, Lacotte, Petit, Preljocaj, as well as the sumptuous re-staging of Petipa’s traditional ballets by Rudolf Nureyev, the Russian director who raised the level of the company to one of the greatest in the world.

Millepied stayed on familiar ground, programming ballets by Balanchine and Robbins, his two mentors, and his American colleague, Justin Peck, as well as new pieces by controversial figures such as Jérome Bel and Maguy Marin, people whose works are more suited to smaller theatres outside Paris. One can even question the proliferation of the works of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s on offer this season, and more than one spectator was surprised to see the Batsheva Dance Company on the stage of France’s great National Theatre.

Millepied was determined to change things, to "dust" the company down and change things quickly in Paris along the lines of what was being done in New York. Perhaps he tried too hard to do too much too quickly.

To this effect, disregarding the hierarchy and possibly wishing to have a company of soloists, he began to promote many of the younger dancers at the expense of the established stars. While it was an excellent policy to give chances to members of the corps de ballet, an odd situation arose where he seemed to be ignoring the existing étoiles, preferring dancers scarcely out of their teens to those, more artistically gifted, but who were already 30 or 35.

Among his interesting innovations was the creation of the "Academie Chorégraphique et de la 3ème Scène". His ‘on-spot’ medical programme for the dancers was one of his most successful ventures, as were his money-making galas and glamour he brought to the opera. Young, handsome, and married to Hollywood actress Natalie Portman, the glamour the couple brought will nevertheless be continued in the unexpected nomination to the head of the company of étoile Aurélie Dupont, one of the most beautiful and luminous ballerinas to grace the stage of the Palais Garnier, who will take up her post officially on August 1st this year.

Stéphane Lissner, Aurélie Dupont, Benjamin Millepied

An intelligent young woman with her head set firmly on her shoulders, Dupont, a youthful 43-year-old belongs to ‘the maison’.  She entered the Paris Opera School in 1983, joining the company in 1989 at the age of 16. After winning the gold medal at the competition of Varna in 1992, she was nominated étoile in 1998, retiring from the stage in May last year. She knows the dancers well and is surely well aware of the work facing her.

At a press conference last Thursday, her one comment was to state firmly that the Paris Opera Ballet was a classical company with a window open on contemporary and not the reverse, a statement revealing not only a change of direction, but a change in policy.

One can only wish her all the goodwill in the world. 

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.

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