Is Benjamin Millepied a Better Fund-Raiser Than Choreographer?

Thank you to Jeff, who comments frequently here, for pointing me to this article in the NY Times, which most of you have probably already seen. The first page is all gloss and generalities and isn’t of much interest to a serious dance audience. I did think it was interesting that this writer, Joshua David Stein, called Millepied a “superstar in the insular world of ballet.” Does anyone really consider him a superstar? He’s known as being a choreographer who gets lots of commissions, but a superstar? I have to agree that unfortunately the ballet world has become really insular. And it hasn’t always been that way, right? What happened? Well, that’s the subject for another post.

What I found most interesting about this article (as did Jeff, who emailed me about it) is on the second and third pages where Stein gets into the business of ballet a bit. I’ve always wondered how Millepied gets so many blasted commissions. I’ve thought much of his choreography is good and interesting, but much of it is not, and I’ve thought that that is because he’s just working so much. How can you be creative on command like that, creating one ballet after the other every few months? According to this article, Millepied is a master of getting commissions because he’s a master of getting people with the means to fund them.

From the article:

His fund-raising prowess owes a debt to the enduring legacy of Mr. Robbins. The Jerome Robbins Trust and Foundation, which is led by Christopher Pennington, underwrites much of Mr. Millepied’s work and his inner circle of donors include Robbins-era philanthropic titans like Anne Bass and Arlene Cooper.

But credit should also be given to Mr. Millepied’s own assiduous cultivation of donors. William H. Wright II, chairman of the New Combinations Fund at the New York City Ballet, a group of 75 donors who dole out $2 million annually for new works, counts Mr. Millepied as a personal friend. Ira Statfeld, the home furnishings guru and a major dance supporter who met Mr. Millepied at a dinner in East Hampton in 2003, said he would “consider Benjamin a member of our family.”

Michele Pesner and her husband, Steven, who is the vice chairman of the Joyce Theater, said they have supported Mr. Millepied “from the very beginning.”

The article goes on quote others whom Millepied has wooed, and then quotes dance historians on the history of patronage in ballet:

To be fair, charming patrons is an integral part of ballet, a genre that grew out of court cultures of 16th-century France and Italy. By the 19th century, the backstage of the Paris Opera was a “privileged venue for sexual assignation” between dancers and season ticket holders, wrote Judith Lynne Hanna, a dance historian, in her book, “Dance, Sex and Gender.”

Interesting…

And then the article goes on to quote dance insiders who think this is how he gets so many commissions – more because of his ability to charm than actually choreograph.

Over the weekend, I was talking to a friend who’s a doctor and also a young patron of ballet, and he brought up the article as well. He said much of medical research is funded the same way – diseases that get the most research are those that are able to attract the wealthiest donors.

I just find it all very interesting…

9 Comments

  1. Thanks for reading the article! Someday I’ll get more of a life and not comment so much! Lol!
    What I found interesting was that while ballet insiders found Millipied’s self promotion upsetting, people in other creative industries I talked to didn’t bat an eyelash. “Of Course you’re supposed to promote yourself!” they’d say.
    Maybe, if american dancers had the nerve to stand up in front of board members and promote themselves like so many foreign dancers do, then maybe more american dancers could find and create work in their own country.

    • Haha, no Jeff, I love your comments! And your emails :) It’s interesting about dancers promoting themselves to board members and other funders. I always wonder if things are different in other countries, if there’s less of that because there’s more government funding for the arts. Probably not, though. It’s probably the same everywhere. Yeah, like your friends, my doctor friend didn’t bat an eye either, saying it’s the same in medical research.

  2. Ha! Maybe Black Swan isn’t as cliche or overblown as it has been made out to be by some members of the ballet world eh? The article and the response to the article does make the ballet world sound very catty and insular.

    People try to turn a blind eye to the realities of the world but all forms of art need financial support to survive. This article makes it sound like Millepied is whispering sweet nothings to these donors. But believe you me, these people are shrewd and won’t easily part with their funds unless a solid case is presented to them and they feel the investment is wise.

    Maybe people aren’t particularly impressed with his choreography and I agree with you Tonya that he takes on too many commissions over a short period (something which I hope will slow down with his new family). But I think he has a great understanding of music and space. To me he needs to work on his narrative but he certainly has talent; we can’t all be superstars but he’s trying to do interesting work.

    Benjamin and Natalie have not had it easy from the start with that first damning article from the New York Post that has lit the fire of vitriol against these two. It seems people have a problem with him dating the “hollywood actress” as if he’s turned to the dark side or something when really it’s probably as simple as two people establishing a connection and falling in love.

    Everybody seems ready to throw sympathy Isabella Boylston’s way but what about poor Saskia Beskow. How difficult must it have been for her to sit and watch Boylston dance principal role after principal role in Millepied’s new ballets. Yet I don’t remember Boylston being dragged through the mud. The gap between Beskow and Boylston is just as blurred but yet Natalie Portman can’t escape the “homewrecker” label.

    It just seems all too much negativity for these two at the moment which I think is unfair…

    • I agree with you, Cari, about him having talent and a good understanding of music and space, and also that he needs to work more on his narrative. Perfectly said! I definitely think he is capable of creating good ballets, and that much of his work is dramatic and captivating. I’m very rarely bored when I see a Millepied ballet. Sometimes I don’t really see thematic or structural unity in a work, and feel like he’s just kind of filling in some weaker parts with movement motifs he’s used before, but I feel like that’s largely because of his workload. I find that I’m always intrigued by his ballets and I always look forward to a premiere of his. It’s just that I also like other emerging choreographers too – like Justin Peck and Adam Hendrickson, just to name two who are also at NYCB. I wish they’d get more commissions too. But I guess it has a lot to do with the name and that person’s ability to schmooze, as Hendrickson put it in the article.

  3. Cia, I think you answered Tonya’s question about the “insular” world of ballet. I have no idea who Boylston and Beskow are. They sound like the title of a law firm. Lol! Seriously, how do they figure into this whole “Black Swan” backstage drama? The press I’ve read mentioned that Millipied was living with a dancer from N.Y.C.B., but they never mentioned her name. Anyone know the scoop?

  4. Stephanie Phillips

    I don’t know who Saskia Beskov is, but Isabella Boylston was his girlfriend before Natalie Portman. She dances with ABT and according to the gossip, was blindsided by the affair. And I need to get a life too, Lol.

  5. Haha, I only know second-hand info from another blogger (who I probably shouldn’t name because he’ll probably start getting contacted by media wanting gossip…) I just know Millepied was supposedly dating Saskia Beskow at NYCB for some time when he broke up with her and suddenly began dating Isabella, and putting Isabella in all of his ballets. Or maybe he fell for Isabella after she was cast by someone else in a ballet he was working on. He kind of seems like a romantic to me who, kind of like Balanchine, falls for the women he’s choreographing on. Anyway, supposedly there was a lot of backstage drama between Saskia and Isabella at one point, leading some to think Millepied didn’t perform so well onstage at times because of this…. Anyway, who knows. This is all gossip I’ve heard entirely from another blogger! Sad though, because I liked Saskia and was sorry to see her return to Denmark.

  6. Wow, I had no idea Millipied was such a playa playa! All I can say is, Karma’s a bitch. And on the fundraising side, I think the difference is just in a lot of other coutnries, being a professional artist is considered an actual career.
    Here in the states, there still is the assumption that it’s something you just happened to luck into, sort of a game. Even the donors here in this country treat it that way most of the time, I feel. But that’s just my opinion.
    Support isn’t just financial. It’s the respect and regard one has for what another is doing also.

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