Choreographer Benjamin Millepied favors Silver Lake's Sunset Junction for interviews. There's Intelligentsia for a cappuccino and the croissant that he gobbles (politely) before he's even paid for it, because he's famished, and eating doesn't seem to be scheduled into his overbooked life. And there's Café Stella's serene patio, hidden from the paparazzi who stalk Millepied when he's with his wife, Natalie Portman, Oscar-winning star of Black Swan, which is how Millepied, the film's choreographer, met her.
Plus, this part of town suits Millepied — pronounced MEEL-pee-A — who in November announced plans to found a major new experimental company, L.A. Dance Project, funded by the Music Center of L.A. County and aspiring to international acclaim. He fits in with the crowd, though you do make note of the bright azure eyes and the model physique (he has posed for an Yves Saint Laurent fragrance). His casual gait and slightly slouched shoulders mask not just his height, which is 5 feet 11, but also his pedigree as an elite classical dancer and celebrated (as well as celebrity) choreographer.
Millepied is a warmly accommodating interview, just not chatty. He's protective. No questions about his private life, he warns, even though his personal and artistic lives are still mixed together. Portman was the honorary chair of New York City Ballet's May 10 spring gala performance, at which Millepied premiered his fourth work for the company.
He reads inferences into questions that were never intended. Asked what makes his style unique, for instance, he begins by talking about the attributes of the ballets by Britain's Christopher Wheeldon and Russian Alexei Ratmansky. They are the other internationally prominent dance makers to whom Millepied is most often compared — and not always favorably. But then, Millepied, 34, has risen quickly, and sniping is to be expected.
He does discuss the ingredients that shape his style: “I was born in France. I grew up in Africa. I studied African [music and dance]. I studied modern. Then I went to exclusively dance with New York City Ballet because that's the work that I believe in. And now, with my response to music, with my body, with my knowledge, with all of that, [it] makes for a different kind of thing.”
He's had a busy winter and spring, with freelance assignments at the Metropolitan Opera House and La Jolla Playhouse. But he's ready to make Los Angeles his full-time home — for now, at least. This summer, he will begin choreographing his first piece for L.A. Dance Project, scheduled to debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall in September.
He recalls how every major choreographer has advised him to get his own group of dancers and to focus on developing ballets just for them. That's when your best work will blossom, they told him.
“I definitely can't wait to see it,” he says. “I picked these dancers very specifically. I have my team. I get to push them. I'm going to shape my piece with them.”