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.