When Benjamin Millepied Choreographed A Gender-Neutral “Romeo And Juliet”

Perhaps no single person has done more to buoy up classical ballet in contemporary culture than Benjamin Millepied, the choreographer for Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 thriller Black Swan. He was already a star among balletomanes thanks to his decade as a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet. But the French-born dancer’s on-screen role in the film, and subsequent marriage to its star Natalie Portman, also turned him into a cooler, sexier poster boy for an artform with a reputation for being cloistered and fussy.

In the decade since, Millepied has worked seemingly tirelessly to break down the barriers between classical dance and a contemporary audience, chiefly through his own company, L.A. Dance Project, but also via a brief stint at the helm of the storied Paris Opera Ballet, during which he injected a more contemporary energy.

In Australia, however, Millepied has been better known as Mr Natalie Portman (possibly even now after their divorce in March) than for his dance work. The couple and their children decamped to Sydney for a year during Covid while she shot Thor: Love and Thunder and he directed his debut feature, Carmen – a dance-led reimagining of the opera story starring Paul Mescal and Melissa Barerra.

Millepied hopes to return here in June, when his latest fusion of dance and cinema, Romeo and Juliet Suite, makes its Australian premiere at Sydney Opera House. It will be his mainstage Australian debut, and L.A. Dance Project’s first visit.

“I love Sydney so much,” Milliepied says from Los Angeles. “It was very hard to leave.”

Two dancers in Benjamin Millepied’s Romeo & Juliet Suite. Photograph: Benjamin Millepied

He also fell in love with the Opera House, which will be not only the venue but the setting for his reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, in which dancers will move between the Joan Sutherland theatre stage and the rest of the building, with a camera following them – and the audience watching via a live video feed.

“The piece really needs special venues, and Sydney Opera House is perfect because you [get to] experience the architecture inside the theatre and outside the theatre, and it has rooms that have a sort of quality and atmosphere [suited to dramatic scenes],” Millepied says.

The genesis for the project was Sergei Prokofiev’s original ballet score for Romeo and Juliet, which Millepied first encountered as a 14-year-old ballet student in Lyon, France.

“Initially I was thinking of making a [feature] film of Romeo and Juliet with Shakespeare and the Prokofiev score,” he says. As a first step, he made a short film starring Margaret Qualley, based on the balcony scene. “And as I made that, I got a taste for the music again, I wanted to do it for the stage.”

Millepied was then invited to choreograph scenes for the LA Philharmonic’s 2018 performances of Prokofiev’s condensed Romeo and Juliet Suite. Because there wasn’t much room for anything besides the orchestra on the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage, he decided to send the dancers out into the rest of the Frank Gehry-designed building, and follow them with a camera.

‘I’m going to represent love every way.’

This initial experiment was a hit with audiences and critics, spurring Millepied to develop a full-length work.

“Cinema allows that kind of magic where violence can look more real and passion can seem more real,” he says. “It’s intimate as hell, because of the camera. And actually it’s not the same as if you go see a movie – I think it has to do with the fact that you get to [see the performers dance on stage in front of you] before they become cinema characters, so there’s a deeper connection to them in what you’re experiencing [on screen].”

The final ingredient in his remix was expanding the heterosexual romantic coupling of the ballet to include same-sex love, with three different castings of the lovers on alternate nights: man-man, woman-woman, and man-woman. The choreography for each pairing is “barely” different, he says.

“For me, it’s natural. I’m not trying to make a political statement. I’m going to represent love every way.” Milliepied says.

In France, where Romeo and Juliet Suite premiered in 2022, the casting proved more controversial than he had expected. “They were talking about it on gameshows. It was a really big deal, I got a lot of shit,” he says. “When I was at Paris Opera, I opened my mouth about diversity as well; now, years later, everyone’s sort of got it, but [at the time] they called me woke.”

Looking ahead, Millepied is developing a feature film set in Paris, that will also feature dance – but he remains committed to live dance and L.A. Dance Project.

“I really would like it to be a place for experimental movement; I think there’s a place for that, especially when it becomes about the expression of a human being. Freedom of expression – in the moment, with individuality, with imagination – it’s really pretty spectacular,” he says.

“I’m at a moment in time where my life is changing, and I think a lot of freedom comes with that, and freedom means exploration; you want to just surprise yourself in every way.”

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