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France’s ballet star on giving up the American Dream

He conquered the New York stage, married a Hollywood star and directed a daring new film version of “Carmen”. But Benjamin Millepied says he had to give up the American Dream to return to France. 

Millepied is best-known to tabloid gossip fans as the husband of actress Natalie Portman, whom he met while working as choreographer on the Oscar-winning film “Black Swan”. 

But he was already a star in his own right — a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet who formed the highly respected L.A. Dance Project. 

Now 45, he has grown tired of the California lifestyle and moved his family back to France. 

“I wanted to return to Paris to rediscover its cultural richness — and I wanted to leave Los Angeles where I felt isolated,” Millepied told AFP. 

Before leaving, he directed his first movie, “Carmen”, with Oscar-nominated rising star Paul Mescal, known from TV show “Normal People” and soon to appear in “Gladiator 2”. 

The film, inspired by the famous Bizet opera about a naive soldier bewitched by a fiery gypsy, is full of dance and music — “something which isn’t so common these days,” said Millepied. 

But it is also a thoroughly modern take, transferring the action to the US-Mexico border, where an American soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress meets an immigrant played by Melissa Barrera. 

It’s a highly political take: “These men and women… go to take part in wars that never should have happened, and come back totally damaged and then are abandoned,” said Millepied. 

Falling in love, the couple flee to LA — “a city where we are confronted by immigration,” he added. 

– ‘A lot of myths’ –

Despite his success in the United States — and a brief, troubled spell as director of dance with the Paris Opera in 2014-16 — Millepied says it is easier to work in France. 

“Developing a cultural project in the United States is very difficult,” he said. “Here in France, I can chase certain dreams and access more funding.”

But as he discovered at the Paris Opera — where he openly criticised the lack of diversity — French society can feel less inclusive. 

It is something which his newly formed Paris Dance Project, an incubator of young talent in the capital’s suburbs, is aimed at combatting.

“There are still a lot of myths about the suburbs,” he said, referring to the way that many Parisians look down on the outskirts of the city. 

“Even if Paris is very open, it can be very cliquey, and the audiences (for dance) are always the same,” he said. 

“We see the budget of cultural institutions falling — that’s also the point of creating new organisations that can more easily offer opportunities,” he added. 

His own experience as a parent — he has two children with Portman — is a motivating factor. 

“Living art has a key role to play at a time when we are told that technology will save everything,” he said. 

“It’s a fight. I see it, I have two children — what experience of the…

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