Paris Opera Ballet Opts for Silence Over Benjamin Millepied’s Resignation

Benjamin Millepied, left, the director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet; Stéphane Lissner, center, the general director of the opera; and Philippe Jordan, the music director, announced the company’s 2016-17 program on Wednesday.
Credit...Francois Guillot/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

PARIS — About 200 journalists packed into the gilded Rotonde du Glacier in the Palais Garnier here on Wednesday for the Paris Opera’s announcement of its 2016-17 season. But those who attended in hopes of learning more about the unexpected news that the director of dance, Benjamin Millepied, had decided to step down after barely 15 months in the post were left disappointed.

After almost two hours, during which Mr. Millepied; Stéphane Lissner, the general director of the Opera; and Philippe Jordan, the music director, detailed the new season’s productions (with guest appearances from the directors Thomas Jolly and Dmitri Tcherniakov and from the composer Luca Francesconi), Mr. Lissner declared the floor open for questions. But, he added: “I ask that your questions be about the 2016-17 season, and only about the season. We won’t answer anything else.”

There was a brief silence, then Mr. Lissner rose to his feet. “No questions? Well, thank you,” he said, and the three men quickly left the table, leaving many of the assembled journalists scratching their heads.

The conference, long planned to announce the season, was nonetheless an occasion for speculation, and for reflection on what Mr. Millepied, a former New York City Ballet principal dancer and choreographer, had brought to the company artistically and otherwise in his short tenure.

Mr. Millepied, 38, had moved quickly to bring about change at the ballet, commissioning new works, bolstering its social media presence and putting a new emphasis on fund-raising. In an interview last week, he said he wanted to return to Los Angeles with his wife, the actress Natalie Portman, and focus on his own choreography and on a small ensemble he founded several years ago.

The new director after Mr. Millepied departs on July 15 will be Aurélie Dupont, 43, a former Paris Opera étoile. Ms. Dupont was not onstage on Wednesday, though she will be charged with successfully mounting Mr. Millepied’s programs.

Critics of Mr. Millepied have portrayed him as having given up precipitously and abandoning a company that he had promised to remake as a 21st-century troupe. Others have suggested that his departure is a sign that the Paris Opera Ballet — like France itself — is so resistant to change that it defeats anyone trying to bring it about, or that Mr. Millepied did not sufficiently respect its traditions and culture and had suffered a well-deserved fall.

The coming season is the second that Mr. Millepied has planned, and it reflects some of the issues that have been raised by his directorship. There is a strong contemporary ballet flavor: a new work by Crystal Pite, as well as two new pieces from Mr. Millepied himself, and ballets by William Forsythe, Justin Peck, Wayne McGregor, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet. There are also works by four choreographers attending the ballet’s choreographic academy, one of Mr. Millepied’s initiatives after becoming director.

There is also an emphasis on the visual arts, including a new work by the performance artist Tino Sehgal that uses the public spaces of the Palais Garnier. A piece by Mr. Millepied involves a collaboration with the French multimedia artist Philippe Parreno, and “Bolero,” by Mr. Cherkaoui and Mr. Jalet, returns to the repertory, featuring design by the performance artist Marina Abramovic.

The American choreographer George Balanchine — not such an idol in France as he is in the United States — is represented by no less than five works, including one full evening program and the full-length “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” new to the company’s repertory. For critics of Mr. Millepied, the preponderance of Balanchine works represents his Americanization of the repertory and his neglect of French choreographic heritage.

In an interview on Tuesday afternoon in his office at the Palais Garnier, Mr. Millepied defended his choices: “I was mandated to bring new ballets and choreographers to the Paris Opera; I don’t see why I can’t present a season with a new repertoire. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have brought back certain ballets from French choreographers.”

“I also want the dancers in the corps to dance as much as possible,” he added, “and that’s what these Balanchine ballets give to you. What he created is simply the best 20th-century classical ballet that teaches you beautiful musicality, the art of partnering and gives you an ability to express who you are as a dancer.”

Introducing Mr. Millepied at the news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Lissner said that he wanted to emphasize that the projects that they had developed together were integral to his continued vision for the Paris Opera as a whole, particularly an emphasis on the collaboration between opera and ballet. Next season, he said, the choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker will direct Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte,” performed by singers and dancers from the opera and from Ms. de Keersmaeker’s own company.

Mr. Lissner emphasized the opera’s range across five centuries, from the French premiere of Cavalli’s “Eliogabalo,” from 1667, staged by Mr. Jolly, to a commission from Mr. Francesconi, “Trompe la Mort,” staged by Guy Cassiers.

Big-name directors include Mr. Tcherniakov for Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely seen “Snow Maiden” and Christoph Marthaler for Berg’s “Wozzeck.” Major stars are scheduled, including Bryn Terfel and Marcelo Álvarez in “Tosca,” Sonya Yoncheva and Anna Netrebko in “Eugene Onegin,” Pretty Yende in “Lucia di Lammermoor,” René Pape and José van Dam in “The Magic Flute,” Jonas Kaufmann in “Lohengrin,” and Roberto Alagna in “Carmen.”