Joy Wang X.Y. looks at the recently released documentary that charts the creation of Benjamin Millepied’s first ballet as Artistic Director of the Paris Opera Ballet, and touches on his views on the institution.
Verbal grenades were thrown in the aftermath of Benjamin Millepied’s resignation. According to one camp, it was the Paris Opera, one of the world’s most elite companies that was at fault; it was too closed, too rigid, too narrow minded. For another, it was Millepied, the NYCB principal turned choreographer turned Natalie Portman’s husband turned director, who had catalysed his own fall from grace. If you are looking for answers you won’t find them here. The film’s French title, Relève; histoire d’une création (it’s also released as Reset), rather neatly sums up its intentions. It is part manifesto (‘relève’ presumably means to rise), part creative process (the history of a creation).
This art on art tête-à-tête is respectful and admiring, presenting its subjects and their craft with a certain deference. Aesthetically, the film has a sepia glazed, vintage hewed beauty. Though the shot is often privileged over the dancing, there is an earnestness here that captures something about this institution; its sense of time, an old worldliness, and its dimensions, august undiminished.
Millepied looms over the documentary, the camera as his shadow. His most explosive comments come midway and they are almost all directed at the company’s staple traditions; its hierarchy (he calls it a caste system), its annual promotion contests, the level of dancing in classical productions… More specifically he tells his dancers that ‘phrasing, the relationship between music and movement’ is missing. More disturbingly, he levels accusations of racism. You wonder why he ever wanted the job without seeing why he would have left it.
Yet these concerns are far from the camera’s surface. Or at least, we don’t see them happening on screen. Millepied narrates, the camera records which is hardly a standard for objectivity. There are hints here and there of a possible personality mismatch but those moments of potential conflict come across as ironic even charming.
What we do see more of is Millepied the choreographer. He has chosen 16 dancers for his new creation, Clear, Light, Bright, Forward, or if we follow him, they have chosen themselves. “I work with those who want to work with me.” All 16 are from the corps de ballet and when one of them, Leitzia Galloni, debuts in La Fille mal gardée, he is radiant with pride, thrilling in her success (he leaves the specifics to Aurelie Dupont). Millepied, who seems to favour the hands on approach, also acts as stand in masseur to an injured Eleonore Guerineau. The choreographer of Black Swan (as the movie poster likes to remind us) is very far from the director in Black Swan.
Millepied’s enthusiasm is infectious, but it would be so much the better if we could hear from the dancers too. They are lovely to look at, but strangely silent. In the moments they do speak, we get only soundbites.
So this, clearly, isn’t the full story, but is it one worth telling?
Occasionally, the camera lingers on individual faces; youthful and serious. What slips through beneath the choreographer’s extroverted exuberance, the camera’s self-reflexive beauty, is the dancers quiet dedication, their commitment, their need.
Millepied was, as later events suggest and the film imperfectly hints at, wrong about many things. But in this, the dancers he chose and the faith he showed in them, he was, perhaps, entirely right. In one sequence, we see Germain Louvet, a soon-to-be étoile, manoeuvred like a sacrificial offering. In another, the film’s most extended dance sequence, a duet with Leonore Baulac and Hugo Marchand, the film finds its analogous image; choreography of smooth surfaces but danced with tender gravitas. Collectively, as an ensemble, they are a beautiful blend of vulnerability and ambition. And they found in this maverick of a director, the chance, quite simply, to dance.
Relève : Histoire d’une creation (also known as Reset)
Language: French, English
Available as DVD and via various streaming providers
Running time: 110 minutes
A Falabracks/Opéra National de Paris co-production with the participation of Canal+ and the Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC).