Need To Know: Black Swan's Benjamin Millepied

3.27.2011

By Joshua David Stein

At 33, Benjamin Millepied is at the top of his game. For Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky's new psychological thriller about cutthroat New York City ballet dancers, the suave, wildly talented French heartthrob multitasked as usual. He served as its choreographer and a coach to Natalie Portman, who stars as lead ballerina Nina, and played the role of her on-screen dance partner (and, later, her off-screen boyfriend). But the film -- which also stars Mila Kunis (as Nina's wayward rival), Barbara Hershey (as Nina's overbearing retired ballerina mother), and Winona Ryder (as a really fucked-up prima ballerina) -- is just one of Millepied's many acts.

When he arrives at 8 in the morning at a sun-flooded SoHo studio, Millepied explains that he'd just flown in from Amsterdam the night before, where he was supervising last-minute rehearsals for his new piece at the Dutch National Ballet, One Thing Leads to Another, with music by classical composer Nico Muhly and costumes by Rodarte. He then adds that he'll be premiering his latest work, Plainspoken, at the New York City Ballet, where he's a principal dancer, later that night.

'I get bored easily,' Millepied says, the remnants of his accent (and probably a lack of sleep) softening his vowels. Indeed, Millepied is a constantly moving machine, an Energizer bunny in a dance belt. He's already been compared to Mikhail Baryshnikov for his wide pop-cultural draw. He can be seen posing and leaping in Club Monaco's fall 2010 campaign and has also collaborated with architect Santiago Calatrava, legendary composer Philip Glass, and the fashion label Y-3. Not to mention, he's danced some of ballet's most inspired male roles, performing in works like Jerome Robbins's 2 and 3 Part Inventions and George Balanchine's Jewels and Copp'lia, just to name a few.

'I danced as soon as I could walk,' says Millepied, and, with a name that loosely translates to '1,000 feet,' he seems born to do it. 'But I came to ballet relatively late.' Born in Bordeaux, France but raised in Senegal, Millepied studied modern dance and percussion before enrolling in the prestigious Conservatoire de Lyon when he was 13. 'My curiosity goes a lot further than just the ballet world,' he says. 'It's true I've ended up with this very classical career, but I am pulled in the sense that my body has a certain amount of knowledge that has nothing to do with ballet.' Millepied definitely seems most animated when discussing the potential of collaborating with some of his friends, including writer Jonathan Safran Foer and poet Nathan Englander. 'I'm starting to find myself a group of artists and writers I've met in the last few months who I really enjoy,' he says. 'This sort of thing used to exist with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes and with [New York City Ballet founder] Lincoln Kirstein. These were people who had a wide cultural interest and the intelligence to gather the right artists together.' He pauses. 'Now,' he says with a sigh, 'ballet is too closed-minded.'

A bit like Portman's obsessive character -- and any ballerina who must play both Swan Lake's lily-white Swan Queen heroine, Odette, and her deceitful, unhinged counterpart, Odile -- Millepied is torn. In his case, between the single-minded discipline of classical ballet and the freewheeling ferment of choreography. 'But when you dance, you have to dance,' he says. 'Nothing exists except the ballet.'

Black Swan is now playing. Check local listings for theaters and show times.

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