“Dancing was a survival instinct”

What if Romeo and Juliet were played by two men? Or by two women? What if Carmen, the sassy one, wasn’t punished for her sexual freedom and didn’t die? The dancer-choreographer Benjamin Millepied, 45, revisits the classics of the repertoire to better question today’s society. This is the role of the artist, assures the star, exiled since 1993 in the United States, but happy to return to France after his brief stint as director of dance at the Paris Opera, between 2014 and 2016, to offer his version of Romeo and Juliet, at La Seine Musicale, in Paris. His company, LA Dance Project, based in Los Angeles, will also perform at Chatelet in October, and he himself will return to the stage of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 2023. A look back at the itinerary of a world famous artist who lived the American dream.

I wouldn’t have come here if…

… If I hadn’t perceived, when I was very young, that music and dance made me feel good, that they gave me intense sensations and allowed me to express the flow of emotions that overwhelmed me. The family environment was complicated and I understand today that it was an unconscious response, a survival instinct, almost a therapy. I stayed alone in my room, I put on very loud music, and I danced, I danced…

So everything was tied up very early on: the passion for music, the joy of movement?

Yes. It all started in early childhood. I don’t really want to talk about my parents, who divorced when I was 9, but I know that music carried me and that I found strength and well-being through movement. And then, the desire to leave, the desire to fly away! From the moment I fell in love with dance, saw musicals on television, discovered Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and then Barychnikov, my absolute star, I started to dream, to project myself into a career, and nothing could stop me.

Give us some clues about the environment of those early years…

The music was omnipresent there. Classical, jazz, flamenco, French song. Chopin and Miles Davis, Léo Ferré and Barbara. Flute, guitar, piano. And African percussion! I was born in Bordeaux, but then I spent four years in Senegal, where my father, a decathlon champion, was a coach and my mother, a modern dance teacher. Our neighbor in Dakar was called Doudou N’Diaye Rose, a descendant of a family of griots and a grand master of drums. He animated the hot nights in the neighborhood and one of his sons accompanied on the tam-tam at Mum’s lessons where my bassinet was placed. The music invaded the head, the heart, the body. Dancing has always felt so natural to me! Back in France, my mother opened a new dance school at home. I was in all his shows, and I had the studio to myself, in the morning before school or at the end of the evening. I was dancing all the time.

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