Big Ben

Benjamin Millepied's creative juices ooze over ABT.

CAP: LEADER OF THE PACK Millepied, demonstrates some steps.

CAP: LEADER OF THE PACK Millepied, demonstrates some steps. GENE SCHIAVONE

Like many before him, Benjamin Millepied choreographs movement that invokes his own dancing. At New York City Ballet, where he has been a member since 1995, Millepied’s impressive virtuosity is contained in a body bereft of mannerism: His dancing is relaxed, yet attuned to the detail and rigor of classicism. As a budding choreographer—he has created dances for his own pickup groups, the School of American Ballet and Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève—that artless sensibility remains the goal even when, as with last year’s Capriccio for the ABT Studio Company, the dancers fly across the stage at a whiplash pace.

Obviously, American Ballet Theatre’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, took note; next week, as part of the company’s season at City Center, Millepied, 30, will unveil From Here on Out, a work for 12 dancers, set to music by Nico Muhly. Featuring costumes designed by the French choreographer himself—unitards in shades of blue and violet with transparent windows (“They look a little bit like superheroes,” he says)—the ballet was originally meant to be entirely different.

“I wanted to do something very dark to Chopin music—preludes and études and no waltzes,” Millepied says between rehearsals at ABT’s lower Broadway studios. “I had this project in my mind for a year and a half, but it turned out that Kevin needed an orchestra. He wanted a closer. I was like”—he makes a stabbing motion toward his heart—“are you kidding? I have pages of ideas. It was heartbreaking, but it turned out great. I think the score is really beautiful.”Millepied met Muhly last year when he created a dance for the Paris Opéra Ballet. “He’s 26 now, and he was 25 at the time,” the choreographer says. “He looks like he’s 12. He is the youngest to ever conduct at the Paris Opéra. In any case, we worked together and he gave me his CD, and I really couldn’t listen to it while I was working in Paris. Or I listened to it, but I couldn’t really get it—it’s the kind of recording that creeps up on you. I remember I was flying somewhere and I just couldn’t wait to land so I could call him.”

From Here on Out, named after the score, isn’t based on a narrative; rather, Millepied was inspired by the music and the dancers, (the three principal casts are Paloma Herrera and Marcelo Gomes; Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg; and Isabella Boylston, who is also the choreographer’s girlfriend, and Cory Stearns). “I was more interested in exploring their physicality,” Millepied says. “I also wanted to have a score in which I could move very slowly or very fast. It turns out that we move fast a lot.”

In the ballet, Millepied regards his dancers as a group of people who come from the same environment—their sinewy movement lends a mysterious quality—and gradually evolve. “The lead couple performs a pas de deux that is more animal, more sexual,” he says. “We worked on having absolute fluidity: I like the dancers to be very sharp and to hold themselves, but to also have the ability to be very fluid. It’s not easy. It’s hard to get dancers to do this,” he says, extending his arm and releasing his hand, sending the energy out. “There’s nothing wrong with stretching the hand through! I like the arm to move from the back, to go farther in the movement—when it has that, it’s a completely different experience to watch.”

Millepied’s approach to choreography has changed dramatically in the past couple of years. His most recent piece, Petrouchka, which premiered in Geneva this month, demanded that he learn Stravinsky’s music inside and out; now he is incapable of working without a score. “Sometimes you have ideas in your mind, but when you have all the counts and know the structure?” he asks. “It’s one thing to have the ear and to get an emotional response, but the score pulls you in other directions. When you have that map in your head, you just pour it out. It’s all there.”

As for NYCB, Millepied contends that he isn’t ready to give up dancing in a company that, as he describes, has “the best rep in the world.” Still, during the past four years, he has been battling foot injuries. “I think it’s finally gone,” he says. “It will be great to just be able to push up and land on my left foot without pain. I still feel like I would cheat myself if I didn’t dance a little more. I’m not saying enough. I just hope that I’m through the pain so I can have some real fun.”

American Ballet Theatre is at City Center Tue 23–Nov 4.