Benjamin Millepied is a French ballet dancer and choreographer, who starred in the movie Black Swan and founded the LA Dance Project. Music is a vital part of his process and he talks about composers who revolutionized music, as well as the tunes that encouraged him to pursue his dreams in America, and make his move from New York to LA. The LA Dance Project premiere is on September 22 and will kick off the 10th-anniversary season of Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center
1. Petrushka - Igor Stravinsky - Chicago Symphony - Sir George Solti conductor
2. America - Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story)
3. Goldberg Variations - JS Bach - Glenn Gould piano
4. Billie Jean - Michael Jackson
5. Ballade No 1 - Chopin - Vladimir Horowitz piano
Mathieu Schreyer: Hi I’m Mathieu Schreyer from KCRW and I’m here with ballet dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied. He starred in the movie Black Swan and he’s the founder of the LA Dance Project. Today, we will be playing excerpt of songs he’s selected that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project.
First off, we're going to talk about "Petrushka" by Stravinsky.
Benjamin Millepied: Stravinsky, you know with Bach, is probably my other hero. He’s just one of the great geniuses that existed. The rhythms are so inspiring and, these pieces, “Petrushka”,“Right of Spring” and “Firebird”, they were composed for ballets. It’s ultimately what you want in the end, they are pieces that more than stand on their own, they’re pieces that revolutionize music and yet were commissioned for dance.
Song: "Petrushka" -- Stravinsky
BM: I choreographed “Petrushka” actually a few years ago. And I decided that I wanted to be able to read the music, you know well, to really read the score very well. I knew how to read music as a kid, but I hadn’t done it for years. So I learned the score. It was such a revelation to look at this perfectly oiled machine of such complexity and sounds, and to be able to like see the kind of work that went on paper, and then hear the sounds. The whole experience of it made me understand my craft as a choreographer a lot better.
MS: That was "Petrushka" by Stravinsky. Next you have an American classic from West Side Story.
BM: Yeah, that’s just interesting because my mom started dancing because of West Side Story. I think she went to see it with my dad when they were in school together, and I think that’s one of the movies that my father took her to. And, funny enough, when I moved to the U.S., my first year in New York, Jerome Robbins who had choreographed and directed, co-directed West Side Story was making a new ballet for the school that I was in, so I got to work with him immediately. So I have a real affinity for him.
Song: “America” -- Leonard Bernstein
BM: What he brought to dance, you know this very specific, natural quality of dancing -- very sort of subdued and dances that were about people, and that weren’t so much about performing to the audience. It had a kind of more intimate quality that I really love, a more modern quality. And you know its just a fantastic score. I mean talk about amazing collaboration between he and Bernstein there, and the rhythms are so incredible to this day. Leonard was really such a great composer.
MS: That was “America” from Leonard Bernstein from the West Side Story soundtrack. Now we're going to get in to some Bach. Why Goldberg Variations?
BM: I chose the Goldberg because they feel incredibly interesting to explore. It’s definitely something that I will choreograph. I’m particularly attached to Glenn Gould’s performance of it that I find so alive and so personal and so free, the way that he explores that music. I feel like everyone could take a little bit of that you know in everything that they do. You know there’s just something about the way he plays it that’s just… he doesn’t care about what’s been done before or anything like that it’s just absolutely his own interpretation of it, and it sings.
Song: The Goldberg Variations -- Bach
MS: That was Bach "Goldberg Variations" performed by Glenn Gould. Now we're about to get into "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson.
BM: Michael Jackson as a kid was what everyone listened to, and it was music that was so rhythmically engaging and exciting, but it also had this cinematic element of his music videos, that had so many influences – musicals being one of them.
“Bad” was inspired by West Side Story or all the horror films and so forth, so it’s really something that I remember as a kid again that I associated with dance and choreography and film. You know, when you are a kid living in France, I knew I wanted to become a dancer. And certainly there were things like the Paris Opera Ballet that I could have gone to, but America was looming large and it was the place that I wanted to go to somehow.
Song: "Billie Jean" -- Michael Jackson
BM: I came to New York to dance with New York City Ballet which was, you know, my dream and the greatest ballet company in the world in my view. But also, then quickly as someone who wanted to make ballets and, have a company, and organize programs and so forth, I found a kind of freedom and support here. Even though we are in a country where culture is obviously difficult and there isn’t government support and so forth, it still feels like, you know, if you have an idea and you really believe in it, that somehow you know you can find a way to make it happen.
MS: That was “Billie Jean” from Michael Jackson, part of Benjamin Millepied’s Guest DJ Project. We’re going to get into your last pick. It’s a piece by Chopin, “Ballade No.1”.
BM: Well, Chopin you know fits with ballet in a way so well. I mean the pieces that were played in my ballet classes, almost every class cause the ballet master was a big Chopin lover. But you know it’s that Polish that sort of Slavic music, and a composer that fled his country to live in Paris and, there’s something so incredibly romantic and something that really touches me.
Song: “Ballade No. 1” -- Chopin
BM: The amount of time that he would spend supposedly on every piece getting them perfect to the note and, you know, the man was sick and dying and living in Paris. It really pierces your heart and so many of the works and that European in me somehow really relates to the music.
MS: Yeah ,you like strong people.
MS: You get inspired by that. Does LA inspire you?
BM: I fell in love with LA when I first came here to perform with New York City Ballet. I immediately would always stay longer and, drive around and, get to know the city. And I’m very much a visual person who enjoys photography and so forth and the light and, the way one building is different from the next and, the vegetation and the history. And what people keep saying to me, “You know, well, dance hasn’t worked here” and so forth and what you find out actually LA has a lot of dance going on. But that’s what LA is like, and I mean that in every field to some extent its like, you’re looking for something and you don’t know where to find it and then you find it and you find it all over the place.
MS: That was “Ballade No.1” by Chopin. Benjamin, thanks so much for joining us on KCRW.com. Thank you for coming.
BM: Thanks for having me.
MS: For a complete track listing, and to find these songs online go to KCRW.com/GuestDJProject and subscribe to the podcast through iTunes.