AT JUST 35 YEARS OLD, Benjamin Millepied has already long been known as a rising star and visionary in the dance world. In 2010, his talents reached an even larger audience when he choreographed and starred (with his now-wife, Natalie Portman) in the film Black Swan. Here on Nantucket, Benjamin has made a name for himself as the Artistic Director for the Atheneum’s celebrated Nantucket Dance Festival, which takes place July 24th-28th.
Born in Bordeaux, France, Benjamin began dancing when he was eight years old, training with his mother who had been a professional modern dancer. After a few years, Benjamin says, it got to the point where he was the only boy in his mother’s dance classes, so it was time to move on. When he was 13, Benjamin was accepted into the Conservatoire National de Lyon, where he studied classical ballet. At 16, he fulfilled his dream of moving to New York City to attend the School of American Ballet, the official school of the New York City Ballet (NYCB), where he was mentored by Jerome Robbins. In 2001, he became a Principal Dancer with the NYCB, a position he held for ten years, recently retiring in October of 2011 to focus on his own choreography and other projects.
Benjamin took over the artistic direction of the Nantucket Dance Festival in 2008 from Ethan Stiefel, a friend and fellow principal dancer of the NYCB. Benjamin considers his collaboration with the Atheneum to be quite exceptional, saying that “the fact that the festival exists — and that the Atheneum decided to use dance to benefit the organization is special.
The Atheneum is also fortunate to have a dancer and choreographer of Benjamin’s caliber at the creative helm. Executive Director Molly Anderson is quick to praise his dedication: “Over the past three years, Benjamin has brought us his extraordinarily creative vision coupled with his amazing ties to the best dancers, choreographers, musicians and designers in the world.” She is confident that his fourth year in the role will yield another brilliant and fresh program.
One of the aspects of Benjamin’s work that Molly admires most is the rich and varied experience he offers the Nantucket audience: “No matter what their individual dance background might be, Benjamin weaves together choreography, performers and music into a startling, unified whole.” She also points out that Benjamin builds his programs with selections that speak to each other — artistically, visually and musically: “It is fascinating to look and listen for these extraordinary interrelationships — patterns and creativity — that Benjamin achieves on our Festival stage.”
Benjamin programs the Nantucket Dance Festival with an eye toward deepening the audience’s understanding of ballet. He selects a range of pieces from the classical and contemporary realms. “Little by little,” he says, “I’ve been trying to educate the audience with different works that are relevant to the history of the ballet tradition as well as contemporary works that help move the art form forward. We’ve done everything from Marius Petipa and William Forsythe to Chris Wheeldon to Ratmansky to my work.” Last year, Benjamin was thrilled to present the world premiere of a ballet by Justin Peck of the NYCB that the Festival commissioned. The piece, 7 (for Seven), was performed by seven dancers from the NYCB to Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, opus 57.
This year, Benjamin is excited about showcasing the work of legendary choreographers like Antony Tudor, Twyla Tharp and Frederick Ashton. “We’ll be presenting styles of dance that haven’t necessarily been seen before on the island,” he says.
When Benjamin is not focused on the Nantucket Dance Festival, he is busy conceiving, choreographing, and bringing a number of other projects to fruition. In the past year, he wrapped up performances with the NYCB, directed five short films set to new violin works by Philip Glass, choreographed two world premieres — Hands On A Hard Body and a new ballet for the NYCB — and a 3D animated feature for Quad Films. He has also performed with the Ballet de Geneve at the Los Angeles Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, and is currently working on a new series of short films that are being produced by the online network Danceon. Most recently, he announced a new venture in collaboration with the Los Angeles Music Center: L.A. Dance Project.
In his “spare” time, Benjamin also pursues a number of other interests. “I do all kinds of things from cooking and gardening to reading and watching films. Lately, I’ve also been seeing a lot of art and reading about art.” On top of all of this, he and Natalie Portman tied the knot earlier this year, and the couple welcomed a new baby, Aleph, into their lives. “Having a child has made me grow up quickly,” says Benjamin. “It gave me a new breath. It’s such a strong experience, a rush of emotions. It has had a profound impact on me. It’s definitely been the most powerful event in my life.”
When it comes to his own choreography, Benjamin starts with the music. He believes that picking the right score is a personal choice: “All choreographers have their own taste and way to decide what gives them the most drive and imagination to make a ballet.” Benjamin seeks out music with good rhythms, though he says that his tastes “really vary from things that are way older to new scores.” As for themes, he is mainly interested in human relationships and how you can use the stage to have fun, exploring different ideas of patterns, groupings, duos or trios, and how you can create sculptural images to music. “That’s really what I’m after currently,” he says. Benjamin admits that he sometimes chooses — and commissions — scores that are not necessarily easy on the ears — music “that can make it challenging for some people to even begin to love a dance.” But this doesn’t hold him back. For example, Benjamin believes that Cosi nata Teria (performed last year for NYCB) was one of his strongest pieces even though it was a dark work and musically difficult for most audiences. He has also decided to include Merce Cunningham’s Winterbranch in L.A. Project’s first season, explaining that it was literally a scandal when it first premiered because of the difficult score. “People ran out,” says Benjamin. “And that’s what I’m putting on for my first program!”
But critics often praise Benjamin’s convictions. In last year’s Nantucket Dance Festival program notes, Joseph Carmen commended Benjamin’s “particular wisdom for knowing how to both please and challenge an audience.” However, this year Benjamin wants to infuse the Nantucket Dance Festival with a heightened sense of summer fun, so he went for a pleasing — and unchallenging — program. As he says, “I don’t know that anyone will walk out of the theater not having enjoyed the works they’ll be seeing this year.”