Saturday, December 17, 2016

Genius at Work: Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai's Reset

Choreographer Benjamin Millepied. (Photo: Patrick Fraser)

The life of a ballet dancer is hard, the life of a ballet artistic director even harder, especially when that director is also a maverick choreographer and free thinker who wants to change convention. It's a tall order, and one that ultimately proved too much for Benjamin Millepied to fulfill  but not for lack of trying. The subject of a new and fascinating ballet documentary that opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Dec. 23 and Vancouver's Vancity Theatre on New Year's Day, Millepied is the David who took on the Goliath of the Paris Opera Ballet when, starting in 2014, he helmed the famed institution where classical dance, as we know it, originated nearly 350 years ago.

Born in France, the former New York City Ballet dancer perhaps better known as the Black Swan choreographer who went on to marry that film's star, Natalie Portman, in 2012, Millepied resigned abruptly from the company in February, after only 15 months in the top job. He has since relocated to Los Angeles with his Hollywood movie-star wife to direct a smaller-scale contemporary dance ensemble. But it's his time at the Paris Opera which is the focus here, a watershed moment not just for this visionary dance artist but also for a company wanting to move forward while respecting the past. Reset  or Relève, as the 110-minute film is called in French  emerges as an important document highlighting the need for innovation in dance and the hierarchical structures that get in the way of real progress. "Sometimes it's hard to move a big ship forward," says Paris Opera director Stéphane Lissner early in the film, addressing an underlying problem.

Millepied quit because he grew frustrated with the slow pace of centuries-old tradition. Which is a pity because, as this visually stunning and emotionally suggestive film shows, Millepied had the drive and ambition to send the Paris Opera hurtling into the 21st century. Now under the direction of one of its female dance stars, Aurèlie Dupont, the legendary ballet company may still get to where Millepied had wanted to take it, a matter of time will tell. Meanwhile, Reset makes it clear where the push for future relevance originated, and not without some grief. Yet the documentary, which screened earlier this year at the TriBeCa Film Festival after debuting on the French cable channel, Canal +, is not in-your-face controversial.

A scene from Reset

Like the ballet it so beautifully and vividly captures, Reset is elusive and evocative in its portrayal of a genius at work. Filmmakers Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai, a respected French duo who specialize in portraiture-like documentaries, capture Millepied on the eve of his first gala creation for the Paris Opera, serving as a fly on the wall to the creative process. With a roving camera, they attentively follow Millepied as he gets lost in the maze of backstage corridors and declares his intent to upend the status quo by casting members of the corps de ballet to dance in his world premiere, not soloists or seasoned principal dancers as would normally be the case. The film begins with 39 days to go before the curtain rises on a bold new dance which Millepied will call Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward, a title that clearly spells out the direction he wants the Paris Opera to go under his direction.

Set to Nico Muhly's jittery original electronic and orchestral score and costumed by European fashion innovator Iris van Herpen using laser-cut fabrics, the ballet evolves in fits and starts in less time than it took God to flood the earth and start the world anew. Millepied scribbles madly in notebooks and experiments with his own lithe and wiry body in an empty dance studio before a mirror, listening to his inspirational music with headphones on while creating it. He also works intensely with the group of young dancers he has assembled for the ballet, coaching them through abstract movement patterns in a number of studios named after great Paris Opera artists past.

There are mishaps. Dancers get injured and a strike at the ornately decorated theatre is barely averted, just days before the debut on September 25, 2015. Millepied is alternately exhausted and exhilarated. When the curtain rises on what he has pulled off, miraculously and out of thin air, he sits alone and anonymously in the back row, tears of gratitude welling in his eyes. He truly loves dance and dancers. He wants to fight for them, give them the dignity he feels they deserve. "When a dance teacher says, 'I'm going to break you,' I can't allow that in our studios," he says, addressing the camera. "I want a company in 2015 that is diverse, with different nationalities and colours on stage. When I arrived, I heard some say a black girl in ballet is a distraction... it's absurd. I have to shatter this racist idea." And he goes some way in doing that in presenting a multiracial cast to the theatre where the ballet blanc was invented, early on in the 19th century. But less than four months after espousing these noble sentiments, Millepied just walks away. What happened? The filmmakers don't exactly say. But their skillful juxtaposition of tradition and transformation within the storied walls of the Palais Garnier underscores a taut line of tension that even a dancer of Millepied's stature couldn't surmount.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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