Music maps dance for ballet’s Benjamin Millepied

Benjamin Millepied says there is no better mentor than George Balanchine. Even though he never worke
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Benjamin Millepied says there is no better mentor than George Balanchine. Even though he never worked with the master, just dancing and watching his ballets has given this star dancer what he calls “an incredible education.”

Millepied is now applying those lessons to ballets of his own creation. His works have been commissioned by the Paris Opera Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Dutch National Ballet. This past spring, he created his first piece for New York City Ballet, “Quasi Una Fantasia,” which premiered at the company’s gala. Described by the New York Times as Millepied’s most accomplished work, this mysterious ballet will slide into the Saratoga Performing Arts Center this week.

Set to a percussive, expressive score by Henryk Gorecki, the atmospheric work juxtaposes two couples, one strong, (danced by Rebecca Krohn with Sebastien Marcovici) the other fragile (Janie Taylor with Jared Angle). Their opposing, but complementary dynamics are backed up by a corps de ballet that moves with and around them, acting like the undercurrent for this churning tableau. “Quasi Una Fantasia” also features an eye-popping double-time duet with Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar.

“The duet was easy to make, but hard to dance,” said Millepied.

New York City Ballet in ‘Quasi Una Fantasia’

WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Spa State Park, routes 9 and 50, Saratoga Springs

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday

HOW MUCH: $72.50 to $26 in the amphitheater and $18 on the lawn

MORE INFO: 587-3330 or www.spac.org

Don’t be fooled. His preparation for “Quasi Una Fantasia” was extensive, mainly through exhaustive study of the Gorecki score.

“I listened to it over and over,” he said by phone from the Netherlands. “Then, I started getting ideas, images. Then I looked at the actual score. I like reading the score because it’s a clear map of its structure. From the structure, I build.”

Of course, it helps that he knows how to read music (he is self-taught) and is in artist-sync with the City Ballet dancers, with whom he performs regularly as a principal with the company. They share a camaraderie that is so intimate that extensive explanations are hardly necessary. And since he will be in Saratoga dancing (Balanchine’s “Scotch Symphony” this week), Millepied says he will have a chance to tweak the ballet prior to its staging here.

“There are some little changes I want to make,” said the French-born dancer. “Some things, I felt, didn’t come across, I want to make clearer.”

Though criticism of “Quasi Una Fantasia” was mixed, Millepied said his experience as a choreographer at his home company was a breeze compared to working with Baryshnikov. Millepied, who was in residence at the Baryshnikov Center for the Arts in New York, created a dance for the Russian star, who is dancing it on his current tour. The making of the solo, “Years Later,” was a challenge.

“It was intimidating at first,” said Millepied. “Misha always questions everything: Why this, why that? It allowed me to ask a lot of questions of myself. He has such knowledge and we had a lot of interesting conversations. Sometimes we agreed, sometimes we didn’t.”

At Pacific Northwest Ballet, directed by former New York City Ballet principal Peter Boal, the task of creating new work was more natural. Boal has always respected Millepied as a dancer, featuring him in his first choreographic effort. He also respects him as a choreographer of “amazing promise.”

As Boal told dance writer Rosie Gaynor, he wanted Millepied to come to Seattle before “he gets too expensive.”

Of course, in his early 30s, Millepied is not quite ready to hang up his ballet slippers and concentrate on choreography full time.

Dance as destiny

Either way, ballet was his destiny. He was born to a ballerina in Bordeaux, France. At 8 years old, the boy with “a thousand feet” (“I got a lot of teasing for my name”) became his mother’s ballet student.

At 13, he entered the Conservatoire National in Lyon. In 1992, he enrolled in the summer session at New York City Ballet’s official school, the School of American Ballet. It was there that

he saw his first Balanchine ballet, Bizet’s “Symphony in C.”

“The energy, the quality of the dancers, I was so attracted to it,” he said. “I just knew I wanted to dance with New York City Ballet. It was so exciting. For me, that was it.”

He returned to SAB the following year to study full time. He joined the company’s corps de ballet in 1995, was promoted to soloist in 1998, principal in 2002.

Through the years, Millepied’s respect for Balanchine has only grown.

“He was always in service to the music and he did it with such finesse,” said the dancer. “In the choreography, there are so many fascinating details, so if you are dancing it or looking at it, even 100 times, you never get tired of it. And he was never greedy, he never overstuffed his dances. There is a great economy.”

He added that Balanchine’s ballets are not demonstrative or superficial. The drama is inherent in the tools and technique. “There is no one else like him in the field,” he said.

Different approach

His awe extends to Robbins, who cast Millepied when he was still at SAB in his “2 & 3 Part Inventions.”

“Robbins brought something else. He brought a naturalism and an intimacy to ballet. He was equally informed, but a very different choreographer. Jerry’s choreography was of his time — the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Balanchine was a reflection of the 20th century.”

As Millepied’s commissions pile up, the craftsmanship of Balanchine and Robbins remains an inspiration. Where this will lead, he is unsure.

“I don’t know what will happen,” said Millepied.

“I’m just going to keep doing my thing, thinking of more ideas and more music. City Ballet is my home, where I want to dance. We’ll see what will happen with choreography. It’s still evolving.”

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