I’m a couple of weeks behind on the New Yorker, and in the process of catching up, I read Rebecca Mead’s fascinating profile of Benjamin Millepied, the man who’s best known as Natalie Portman’s husband (they met on the set of Black Swan), but most importantly, is the new director of the Paris Opera Ballet. It’s a wide-ranging evaluation of Millepied’s choreography (the verdict is mixed) and his cultivation of the kind of supporters, including Van Cleef & Arpels, who give him the resources he needs to pursue what he sees as his mission to bring ballet to a wider, more sustainable contemporary audience. But while Mead deeply assesses Millepied’s choreographer, and his move from principal dancer, to choreographer, to director of a ballet company, she spends less time discussing what seems to be a clear undercurrent of Millepied’s artistic thinking: the need to modernize what ballet represents, as well as the artistic elements that are incorporated into them.
There are three big ideas that come across in Millepied’s comments about race and gender in ballet, reported at different points in the piece:
1. What we depict in art reflects real attitudes, and has real implications for how we see the world outside the theater or beyond the screen: Talking about instruction he’d given to the dancer Nathan Makolandra, telling him not to grasp his partner, Amanda Wells, by the neck Millepied explained: “I like to let the women be in charge a lot in my duets, because there is something really old-fashioned about the man carrying the woman across the stage and that’s not how I want to portray women…It was interesting, because in a way that’s how Nathan relates to women. It’s not conscious. It’s how he relates to others–he could have done that to a guy, too.”
2. Racial diversity is just common sense when you’re trying to attract new audiences to a form: Reflecting on the company he inherited, Millepied said “I think there’s a girl from Argentina, maybe two from Asia. I can’t run a ballet company now, today, and not have it be a company where people in the house can relate to, and recognize themselves in some ways. So that is one thing I am going to be ruthless about.”
3. Equality can be a source of new creative energy: Of the choreographer Crystal Pite, who runs a dance company that draws from multiple traditions, Millepied told the New Yorker “There is something completely modern about the equal relationships between men and women in her work.”
It’s not enough, of course, for a ballet company to simply be made up of a diverse selection of dancers, or for a company director to choose pieces that have fresh ideas about gender and race. If you want to make art that’s both creatively and politically transcendent, you need a solid technical foundation, genuine creative insight, and an understanding of how those things interact with and serve the point you want to make about the state of the world. It’s absolutely right for Mead to go deep on Millepied’s taste, his choreography, and the interaction of his artistic and commercial ambitions.
But I wish she’d gone deeper on his stated politics, too, which are not separate from his artistic intentions, but rather, integral to understanding them. Rethinking the way women’s bodies and what women are capable of doing with them, considering what stories you can tell and what audiences you can draw with a more diverse cast, and changing the stories you tell about the relationships with men and women are all major creative considerations. If Millepied were the head of a television network or a movie studio, these would be profoundly radical statements that would merit some consideration of the medium in question’s present workforce, the tropes it’s historically preferred, and what those tropes say about the medium’s relationship to and place within society as a whole. Maybe Mead’s trying to normalize that process by treating Millepied’s statements as if they’re not exceptionally controversial, just a statement of reality. But given how difficult diversity has been to achieve in other, more popular media, it might have been worth assessing this goal as part of Millepied’s larger project, and acknowledging exactly what it is that he’s taking on.