Everything Is Happening for Millepied

“It’s true, in ballet schools [choreography instruction] is definitely lacking,” said Ethan Stiefel, a principal dancer at ABT who recently became dean of the dance department at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Beginning this year, Mr. Stiefel made choreography a requirement for all ballet concentrators.

At a rehearsal this summer, Mr. Millepied watched the dancers in his company, Danses Concertantes, move low to the ground, their heels digging down—not the typical perked-up postures of traditional ballets. “Really relaxed in the legs, low to the floor,” he said, coaching his dancers as they moved. If he was sure what he wanted for the overall tenor and structure of the ballet, he let the dancers work with him on their own pas de deux, the heart of any work. The small but critical gestures—where to put the arms, how to position the head—help convey the personality of a dancer. And his encouraging of their involvement helps explain why many dancers want to work with him.

Much like Mr. Wheeldon—who has danced with Mr. Millepied at City Ballet and brought his company, Morphoses, to the Vineyard Arts Project after Mr. Millepied left—Mr. Millepied emphasizes individuality and intimacy in his work. For many City Ballet–trained dancers, this legacy comes from Jerome Robbins, who took over the company, along with Peter Martins, after George Balanchine’s death, in 1983. “Dancing in Jerry’s ballets, it’s a very specific thing,” Mr. Millepied said. “It’s about being natural, being yourself onstage, reacting with other dancers.”

If Balanchine focused on abstraction and purity of form, Robbins reintroduced personality into dance. Sailors, soldiers and fauns fill Robbins’ works, but for young choreographers, those personas can feel contrived and dated. “They just get older in a way that Balanchine’s dances don’t,” Mr. Millepied said, comparing Robbins to Balanchine, founder of the New York City Ballet. “It’s not something you’re going to see again”—Balanchine’s talent—“let’s make that clear. He was at ease in the 19th and 20th century, he was timeless. Robbins was very much of his time.”

The challenge for Mr. Wheeldon and Mr. Millepied is to retain the technical precision and classicism of Balanchine while conveying the emotional directness derived from Robbins. “That’s the common bond between Benjamin and I,” Mr. Wheeldon said. “We’re always trying to find ways to have the abstract have emotions.” He went on: “We were really the last group of dancers to work with Jerry”—Robbins was active with City Ballet almost till his death, in 1998—“We were really influenced by him. Jerry wanted people in the room; he wanted those personalities to really come through.”

For most dancers, mastering the technical skills is difficult enough. Developing a personality onstage comes over time, if at all. That makes it particularly demanding to work for Mr. Millepied, who is not only asking dancers to find their voice, but is himself searching for one. “It doesn’t always come naturally,” said Cory Stearns, who, at 23, is a rising star at American Ballet Theatre and will dance in Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once. Mr. Millepied “will ask us to be lulled to the floor, or he’ll say ‘do something short,’ and we’ll look around and not know what he means.”

Mr. Stearns and others say that because Mr. Millepied still dances, though, he can demonstrate what he wants. In addition, Mr. Millepied is from the same generation as his dancers—raised on video games and the Internet—which makes cultural references easy. “I don’t know if you ever played the game Tekken,” said Mr. Stearns, referring to a martial arts video game, “but [his movements] are kind of like that.”

Mr. Millepied has been making dances for eight years—a half-decade less than Mr. Wheeldon—and still dances with City Ballet. But despite early praise, he has had no major breakthroughs. There is a sense that if Mr. Millepied does not score a big success soon, his stock will be depleted: fewer commissions by major companies, less work with star designers and musicians, no more movie-star training. “His name is in the air; there’s a feeling he’s hot property,” said Roslyn Sulcas, a dance critic for The Times who has written about Mr. Millepied, when asked if the choreographer is a bone fide great. “But I don’t think Benjamin has made enough work to know yet.”

A month before Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once was set to debut, Mr. Millepied was back in New York, rehearsing. Like most artists, he says he does not let critics bother him, and when he is with his dancers, working, the pressure does seem to dissipate. He does not get distracted, he smells no smoke, he smiles, laughs. And then you will catch him talking to himself, just loud enough so you can hear. “I hope I like this when I’m done, ’cause if I don’t”—he turns to you, smiles, then continues—“it’ll be a shame.”