‘Black Swan’ choreographer Benjamin Millepied is the focus of a documentary chronicling his first project with the Paris Opera Ballet.
A cultural institution undergoes a cultural shift in the intimately observed Reset. The institution in question is the Paris Opera Ballet, the world’s oldest national ballet company, and the shot of adrenaline to its fusty system arrives in the agile form of Benjamin Millepied, returning to his native France after a 20-year career in the States, to take the reins as dance director.
As they recount “the story of a world premiere,” filmmakers Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai take the viewer from first steps to exultant gala performance — in essence, from the prosaic to the transcendent.
There’s no question that dance buffs will spark to this behind-the-scenes chronicle of a ballet star at work — especially because they’ll already know a certain fact about Millepied’s tenure with the company, information that for other viewers is something of a stunner when it’s presented at film’s end. Though the film, which lapses at times into repetitiousness, could have been trimmer and sleeker, even non-aficionados will be swept up by its dynamic look at the creative process. It’s a fine addition to the canon of nonfiction films about ballet, among them Frederick Wiseman’s comparatively exhaustive portrait of a pre-Millepied Paris Opera Ballet, La Danse.
Other than a backstage glimpse of Millepied’s wife, Natalie Portman, at the September 2015 premiere of the half-hour piece Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward, the vérité film makes no reference to his work on Black Swan. But a sense of glamour, confidence and achievement is evident in his every move. So too is a New World openness that finds him butting against inflexible tradition.
Co-director Teurlai, serving as dp, catches the glazed-over glimmers of good-humored impatience as Millepied, a longtime principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, confronts his new bureaucratic duties. In an endearingly self-mocking acknowledgment of his newbie status, he adds a book on leadership to the mounting paperwork on his desk. While his assistant, former dancer Virginia Gris, works the phones with a fury, he eyes with cheerful alarm the calendar she’s filling for him. Amid rehearsals and meetings with colleagues and the press, a simple bench for the ballet’s minimalist set becomes a running joke, one that involves the props department, union regulations and France’s lengthy summer break.
The ballet that Millepied is choreographing, with commissioned music by American composer Nico Muhly, breaks significantly with convention by featuring none of the company’s lead dancers. Instead, the new director selects 16 members of the corps de ballet, giving younger artists an opportunity to challenge themselves and occupy the spotlight. At least as crucial is Millepied’s commitment to shattering the shockingly antediluvian notions that value uniform optics and consider nonwhite dancers “distractions.”
An athletic dancer who approaches his work with a profound devotion to enjoyment as well as craft, Millepied does what he can to shake his dancers out of the fear and competitiveness that have been bred into them as members of an elite company. “Enough with that excellence stuff,” he declares at one point, a hands-on teacher who’s exacting but encouraging, and eager to puncture the aura of prestige and its rarefied air.
Early scenes, capturing the gestation period for Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward, have a perhaps intentional quotidian dullness as Millepied eats, thinks, looks at his laptop, waits for the elevator. Then he gets moving, working out the first dance steps to Muhly’s nuanced score. Gradually the film’s energy grows, along with the project's, to the point where even Millepied’s penciled notes in a lined notebook have a kinetic power.
Hard work and precision give way to visual poetry. A striking sequence combines the dancers’ voiceover commentary with footage of solo routines. Millepied, who’s always ready to demonstrate what he wants from his troupe, speaks eloquently of the artistic intensity and erotic charge of a pas de deux. The filmmakers are alert to his creative nimbleness, as when he jettisons eye-popping tutus by costume designer Iris van Herpen at nearly the last minute, without fuss. And they zero in on an especially affecting give-and-take between talents of very different temperaments when the extroverted conductor, 25-year-old Maxime Pascal, finesses details of the score with Muhly in the final days before the premiere.
Teurlai and Demaizière build a strong sense of anticipation for that climactic performance, with an exhilarating assist from Pierre Aviat’s score for the documentary. And when the public performance arrives, they wisely pull back to a full-stage view of the ballet, gradually moving in for a closer look. Editors Alice Moine and Teurlai deftly intercut the elegant finished product with Millepied’s reactions and rehearsal versions of the onstage feats. Like Millepied and his dancers, the film spins stamina into grace.
Production companies: Falabracks, Opéra National de Paris, Canal
Directors: Thierry Demaizière, Alban Teurlai
Producer: Stéphanie Schorter
Director of photography: Alban Teurlai
Editors: Alice Moine, Alban Teurlai
Music: Pierre Aviat