Days before President Obama arrived on Martha’s Vineyard this August, Benjamin Millepied was in a house not far from where the president would stay. “What’s that smell?” Mr. Millepied pricked his nose in the air, muttering to himself. “Shit. They were smoking in here, weren’t they?” He was sitting upstairs in a stately white home, a summer residency for dancers, where he and his company were workshopping a ballet to premiere in Europe this fall.
But he had a lot else on his mind, too: reshooting a dance film he made for Mikhail Baryshnikov, currently touring in theaters; training Natalie Portman for her role in Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming movie about ballerinas; and, at a pivotal point in his career, creating a lengthy new work for American Ballet Theater, Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once, which premieres Oct. 7 at Avery Fisher Hall. It will be his second commission for the company and a big opportunity to prove his critics wrong: No, he is not just a trendy item, stylish but insubstantial. He is for real.
“I haven’t even started rehearsing it yet,” he said about the ABT ballet back in August. “But I’ve been thinking about it for months.” He turned back to the smoke. “Do you smell that?” He stood up, tracing the odor to a room where a few dancers had recently left—Hurricane Bill was approaching that weekend, forcing several dancers to leave the island early (and Mr. Obama to arrive late). He jumped on a bed, pushing open the window behind its backboard. Exhausted, he collapsed then threw back his head: “It’s been a long summer; long, long, long, long …”
Mr. Millepied seemed under pressure much of the past few months, and not just to prove his own worth. His ABT piece will appear alongside another newly commissioned work, Seven Sonatas, by Alexei Ratmansky, who, along with Christopher Wheeldon, is the greatest hope for ballet’s artistic evolution. The two biggest names in ballet choreography today, they are entrusted not so much with the genre’s survival as with its future.
Mr. Millepied, 32, is on the brink of that renown, too. In a genre split between upholding tradition and attracting new audiences, Millepied is the rare talent attuned to both needs. He has complete command of the classical vocabulary, having danced with the New York City Ballet since he was 15. And he has that gift of personality—charisma, charm, humility—allowing him to enlist collaborators that bring in fashionable crowds. Marc Jacobs, Nico Muhly and Philip Glass have all worked closely with Mr. Millepied, to say nothing of Mr. Baryshnikov and Ms. Portman.
“He’s not just living in the ballet world,” said Ashley Melone, the director of the Vineyard Arts Project, who invited Mr. Millepied to the summer residency. “He knows what’s going on in other parts of the art world, too. He definitely knows how to market himself.”
Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once features music by David Lang, the co-founder of Bang on a Can who won a Pulitzer Prize for music last year. Mr. Millepied approached him about using his music months ago, and after meeting Mr. Millepied, Mr. Lang was eager to help. “He’s incredibly friendly, a pleasure to be around,” Mr. Lang said. “And he’s beautiful.” Mr. Millepied has a soccer player’s lean, compact body, a finely chiseled jaw and large, blue eyes, bearing a faint resemblance to Jude Law. An abstract tattoo runs up the left side of his stomach, inspired by the Bauhaus painter Oskar Schlemmer. When he smiles, which is often, you get the sense that he is confiding in you—a secret maybe, an insider’s joke.
ABT couldn’t afford to commission a new score, so Mr. Millepied chose three works Mr. Lang had already composed—“Cheating, Lying, Stealing,” “Stick Figure” and “Short Fall.” Taken together, the music balances a wintery, emotional tenderness with heavy propulsive rhythms. Urban and modern, it is a strange if entirely welcome choice for ABT, often criticized for its focus on fusty period fairy tales.
“I think Ben’s being courageous, bringing my music into the ballet,” Mr. Lang said. Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of ABT who commissioned Mr. Millepied, agreed: “I’ve been following him for a while now and I thought that, if nothing else, this guy is daring.”
For Mr. Millepied, though, the music is perfectly fitting. He may not have honed a signature style yet, but he does have certain identifiable strengths. One is his musicality—letting the music drive the movement. His mother was a modern dancer and his father a decathlete, and for a brief period the family moved from France to Senegal, so his father could train Olympic athletes.
Their neighbors were constantly playing drums, a hobby Mr. Millepied picked up himself, and the rhythmic sensibility comes through in much of his work. Well before he puts a dance together, Mr. Millepied spends months listening to music, imagining the right turns, twists and leaps. (He recently took his girlfriend, Isabella Boylston, a dancer with ABT, on a vacation to the Caribbean and, she said, “He had his head sets on at the beach the whole time.”)
After six years dancing professionally with New York City Ballet, where he is still a principal dancer, Mr. Millepied decided to try choreography, in 2001. It was not an easy choice. “It’s almost like an old-fashioned thing,” Mr. Millepied said. “It’s really up to us, to you, to figure it out.” He lamented the limited time ballet schools give for choreography instruction, a commonly heard complaint.
“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.”