Can dance maverick Millepied make it up to L.A.?

Of the many upbeat ways to describe the dance culture in Los Angeles — “hungry,” “pioneering,” “innovative,” “risk taking” — it is probably best characterized as striving. Even the most enthused of local enthusiasts admit there is something unrealized about the dance scene here, which is really a polite way of saying that it is lacking. 

Enter Benjamin Millepied, a prodigy principal dancer and choreographer from the New York City Ballet whose star-making turn choreographing the 2010 Oscar-nominated film “Black Swan” helped crown him the new darling of L.A. dance. Last September, aided by a $250,000 grant from Center Dance Arts, the fundraising arm of the Music Center, Millepied debuted his L.A. Dance Project, an experimental repertory company merging dance, design, film and visual arts in exploratory venues.

Replete with red carpets, couture dresses and international attention, helped, of course, by Millepied’s recent marriage to actress Natalie Portman, the group’s debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall was a highly anticipated affair. Supporters hoped the performance would establish L.A. Dance Project — and the city that birthed it — as the epicenter for world-class dance. “Giant Steps for Dance in Los Angeles,” declared The New York Times. To set tongues wagging, Millepied created a challenging and provocative program, featuring visually and aurally evocative works from renowned choreographers William Forsythe and Merce Cunningham, in addition to his own material.

The response was impassioned and polarized: “Very, very ordinary choreography,” Los Angeles Times’ critic Lewis Segal declared of Millepied’s “Moving Parts.” In a review of the same show during a tour stop in New Jersey, The New York Times’ Alastair Macaulay described Millepied as “gifted, ambitious, intelligent,” but added, “his gifts so far have looked nebulous and self-contradictory, like this opening program of his company.”

Less than four months later, Millepied announced news that shocked the L.A. dance world: He would accept the position of director of dance for the Paris Opera Ballet. Within weeks, he and his wife and their infant son, Aleph, had absconded from the City of Angels, to which he had promised so much, and made their way to the City of Lights, where he would have much to prove. 

This Sunday evening, Millepied returns to Los Angeles for L.A. Dance Project’s first local performance since its Disney Hall debut. It will perform in a double-bill with the homegrown company BodyTraffic (founded by two local Jewish female dancers) at American Jewish University (AJU). Following the performance, Millepied will join BodyTraffic co-founders Tina Berkett and Lillian Barbeito to discuss something he has never before talked about publicly: how Judaism has impacted his work. The conversation is sure to be full of surprises, as Millepied has never confirmed whether he has converted to Judaism, or plans to (Portman, of course, was born in Jerusalem). It’s been much reported, however, that the couple was married by a rabbi and Millepied wore a yarmulke for the nuptials.

Choreographer Benjamin Millepied

Five years ago, no one would have cared. But the combination of Millepied’s Hollywood foray with “Swan” and his subsequent marriage to Portman has heightened his celebrity to the point where it’s hard to discuss his career trajectory without acknowledging those factors. Fame changes things, even if his supporters resist that notion: “There’s this assumption that [the creation of L.A. Dance Project] was all about the celebrity of the moment, and that’s just not true,” said Jane Jelenko, president of Center Dance Arts (CDA) for nearly a decade, and one of the instrumental players in the decision to launch L.A. Dance Project. “The feedback loop of celebrity takes too prominent a place in this story arc; Benjamin had commissions with Paris Opera Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera before anybody ever heard of Natalie Portman.”

It helped, of course, that Millepied’s first big meeting with local dance patrons took place the night after the 2012 Academy Awards, when Portman won best actress. At a private gathering at Soho House, Millepied was invited to sell his idea for a cutting-edge artist collective. “That moment came together with the Oscars, and everybody knew about it,” Jelenko said. “So it was luck, frankly.”

Discussing Millepied with the town’s dance brass is a loaded subject. To some, he is seen as a big-name talent with illustrious credentials and impeccable taste who could only be a boon to L.A.’s dance culture. “Benjamin Millepied definitely contributed to the visibility of dance in Los Angeles,” said Susan Josephs, an L.A.-based dance writer who profiled Millepied for the L.A. Times. “In places like New York and other dance meccas, L.A. has been perceived as dance backwater — like, does dance even happen in Los Angeles? His coming here definitely alerted people to the fact that it does.”

For others, he is the consummate outsider who smartly leveraged his spotlight into a splashy new role, but barely got his pointed toes wet before dashing hopes and dipping out. “I think the sense was like, ‘Oh. Well, that was fast. He came and he went,” Josephs said.

For local dance artists, however, Millepied’s chosenness was tough to take. That he became the recipient of the Music Center’s most significant investment in a local company to date — not to mention, its first-ever full commission for new work — was seen by some as outright indifference to the local dance scene or, worse, neglect. In a town where funding for the arts is already frightfully scarce, the abundance provided to Millepied reminded local dancers of their lesser status.

“It was kind of a smack in the face to all of us,” said Kate Hutter, artistic director and co-founder of L.A. Contemporary Dance Company. “Local dance companies saw this thrust of funding suddenly appear, but it was all thrown at one person to create a company anew. [Local patrons] would rather bring in a shiny, new toy than help sustain the things that were here.”

For his part, Millepied seemed to add insult to injury when he held open auditions for his L.A.-based company but hired only dancers from New York. Some wondered, as Josephs put it, “Where is the L.A. in L.A. dance project?” 

Some, however, found the criticism ludicrous. “This whole thing that he’s a carpetbagger is stupid,” said dance critic Laura Bleiberg, a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times and an editor at Orange Coast Magazine. “What makes New York’s scene so vibrant? Everybody wants to be there. Most of them are transplants.” 

Despite some hurt feelings, almost no one denies that Millepied selected an exemplary group of dancers for L.A. Dance Project and that their presence here is strengthening the local talent pool. In the past, although young dancers have been attracted to L.A.’s many dance academies — CalArts, UCLA and USC’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, among them — graduation is usually followed by a swift exodus. By hiring New York dancers, Millepied was aiming for sea change.

Nevertheless, many felt his Disney Hall debut was too avant-garde for L.A. audiences and cast aspersions on his bold artistic choices. Renae Williams Niles, vice president of programming at the Music Center, said she was “absolutely blown away” by Millepied’s debut, but conceded that it probably wasn’t what the entertainment capital audiences were expecting. “I’ll admit, when I’ve taken projects to Disney Hall, they tend to be a bit more intellectual, more contemporary, maybe some people would define them as edgy,” she said. “Benjamin wasn’t doing fluffy work. We really appreciated that he was bringing in significant artists and uneasy experiences.” 

Elizabeth Levitt Hirsch, a Beverly Hills philanthropist and arts patron, called the performance “onerous.” “It was an act of dance snobbery and dance conceit,” she said. “As a significant funder of the company” — Levitt said she committed $15,000 to Center Dance Arts’ fundraising effort — “I’m one of the people who is disappointed with [L.A. Dance Project’s] expression at the Music Center. Nothing that night personally spoke to me.”

Still, enough supporters continue to believe that Millepied is an exciting and provocative tastemaker whose audacious displays and interest in pushing the envelope could grant Los Angeles the artistic sophistication it craves. As for his critics: “There’s a lot of jealousy,” said Stephan Koplowitz, dean of dance at CalArts. A longtime, formerly New York-based choreographer, Koplowitz knows well the competitive sniping that can coincide with success in the arts world. “A lot of people would love to have the opportunities that have come his way.” 

A few years ago, Millepied was a rising star in the insular dance world, and little-known outside of it. Today, in addition to his dual directorships located an ocean apart — one of which is arguably the most prestigious dance post in the world — he is also the face of an Yves Saint Laurent cologne, frequent fodder for paparazzi and enjoying his new role as husband and father. 

As one New York Times piece put it, back in 2011: “The ballet star has it all: Looks, talent, a film career and Natalie Portman […]. How can you not hate him?”

For his fans and supporters in Los Angeles, however, his jumping ship for the Paris Opera Ballet was more disappointing than distasteful. “I’ll be honest with you. My first reaction, frankly, was almost like a mother’s; I was so proud and so happy for him,” Jelenko said. “Two clicks later, my reaction was, ‘Oh, s—.’ ” 

Both Jelenko and Williams Niles worried that Millepied’s move to Paris might spell the demise of L.A. Dance Project. “What’s going to happen to the baby that was just birthed?” Williams Niles wondered. But she also knew Paris Opera Ballet was an “incredible opportunity” for Millepied — and maybe also for Los Angeles. “It took me a couple of conversations to see that the future could be promising.”

Jelenko and Williams Niles insist Millepied is still committed to the company: He has promised to stay on as founding artistic director, although the group will likely have a series of roving choreographers come in and set work. Music Center patrons are also hoping that Millepied will leverage some of his Paris Opera contacts into connections for Los Angeles. “We think he’s going to be able to create an enormous magnet that will benefit us,” Jelenko said.

Laboring under the burden of such high expectations has its cost, however, and the furious flutter of activity that has characterized Millepied’s last year has left some wondering whether he may be in over his head. At a press conference at the Palais Garnier last January, where he first announced his move to the Paris Opera, New York Times reporter Roslyn Sulcas noted he seemed “slightly nervous.” 

“I worry he has so much on his plate and so much pressure,” Jelenko said. 

Bleiberg, who interviewed Millepied when he first launched L.A. Dance Project, recalled: “I got the sense that he was very tired of being a choreographer for hire and really wanted to find his voice working with a stable group of dancers,” she said. “I almost feel sad he isn’t sticking with that. On the other hand, Paris Opera Ballet is perhaps something you can’t turn down. But maybe he should have.”

Berkett, co-founder and co-artistic director of BodyTraffic, with whom L.A. Dance Project will share Sunday night’s bill at AJU, has known Millepied since the two toured together with Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Hell’s Kitchen Dance company. “What Benjamin did was tremendous for L.A.,” Berkett said, citing his attraction of world-class talent to L.A.’s under-the-radar scene. “Regardless of whatever his mission was — people can question his commitment to L.A., they can question whether or not he loves L.A. — it really doesn’t matter. Because he’s already done so much.”

BodyTraffic and L.A. Dance Project are described as comparable companies, if not equals. Like Millepied, Berkett and partner Barbeito are committed to commissioning new work from leading choreographers, a tactic that will be on display Sunday night: Their opening number is “Transfigured Night,” choreographed by Israelis Guy Weizman and Roni Haver and set to an Arnold Schoenberg score that was suppressed during the Holocaust. It is precisely the kind of original work both companies wish to produce more of.  

“A lot of people in our community don’t understand how significant Los Angeles is in terms of dance history,” Williams Niles said. “They don’t realize that Balanchine lived here. Stravinsky lived here — longer than he lived anywhere else in his life. And how many times do we have to tell our audiences that it was here that Alvin Ailey began his dance career?” 

Could Millepied be next on that list? Some have already drawn comparisons with Baryshnikov, who was able to parlay his dance success into pop-culture stardom. Fame, it turns out, can be an asset. 

“Misha was on ‘Sex and the City’ and quite great,” Williams Niles said. “And I’ll admit, it would be absolutely tremendous if we were able to have two or three of those artists that really do seep into popular culture. Hopefully they don’t lose their integrity in the process.”

For tickets and more information about the June 16 performance, visit Tickets will also be available at the door.