Benjamin Millepied © US Embassy, France | Wikicommons
Benjamin Millepied
© US Embassy, France | Wikicommons
The ballet world was aflutter yesterday with the decision of Benjamin Millepied to step down as director of Paris Opéra Ballet, a little over a year since he took on the coveted post. At a press conference, Millepied cited the desire to be able to concentrate “100% on creating” rather than the inevitable administration and management that comes with the job. A former New York City Ballet principal dancer, the charismatic French choreographer shot to international fame for his work on the film Black Swan. His shock departure comes just a day before the world première of his La nuit s'achève as part of a mixed bill at the Palais Garnier tonight and a week before the new Paris season is announced.

“What’s important to me is to create, to be inspired by the dancers, and today this job, as it exists, is not made for me,” Millepied explained. He will return to Los Angeles to focus on his own choreography, as well as his dance ensemble, the LA Dance Project. He will choreograph two works for Paris next season.

Stéphane Lissner, director of the Opéra de Paris, enigmatically commented that Millepied “leaves too soon, but others leave too late.” Former étoile Aurélie Dupont, who retired last year, was announced as the new director, taking up her post when Millepied officially leaves in July. She immediately declared that she has "no talent" as a choreographer and will not create any ballets for the company. This raises an interesting question and not just one for the ballet world. Can the director of a large international company juggle a management role with the desire to create?

Palais Garnier © Jean-Pierre Delegarde | Opéra National de Paris
Palais Garnier
© Jean-Pierre Delegarde | Opéra National de Paris

It’s a conundrum London has to consider carefully. In December, Kasper Holten, Director of The Royal Opera, announced that he will leave Covent Garden in 2017 to return to Denmark. Since taking up his appointment, Holten has directed a handful of productions for the company, as well as remaining in demand abroad. He is currently preparing a new production of Wagner’s early opera Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love) in Madrid, which will eventually come to London. As head of the Royal Opera, he has been refreshingly open, deftly handling social media and engaging a number of European directors for new productions which have often ruffled feathers among audiences.

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden © Laika | Wikicommons
The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
© Laika | Wikicommons
As the search for new candidates gathers pace this spring – that there are no obvious candidates is damning in itself – one of the questions is: should the Royal Opera appoint a director who wishes to direct opera at all? Should they appoint someone who wishes to stamp their own footprint on the company via their productions, or should it be a purely managerial role? For Millepied in Paris, the frustration of not being able to create (or unable to create as much as he wanted) meant resigning from his post. For directors such as Barrie Kosky, the brilliant artistic director of Berlin’s Komische Oper, you could not imagine him not directing. He has very much made the company his own through his daring stagings which have garnered international praise, including “Opera Company of the Year” in the 2015 International Opera Awards.

But not only is Barrie Kosky very much a one-off, the Paris Opera Ballet and The Royal Opera are much larger companies and the drain on the artistic directors’ time must be immense. It works both ways. Directorial activities also drain time away from the role of running a company.

There is also, to my mind, a conflict arising from the situation where the artistic director invites fellow directors to create at his/her company. What if their work is not good enough? Katharina Thoma’s production of Un ballo in maschera in 2014 should have been rejected by Holten. It was an amateurish staging unworthy of the Royal Opera, the cardboard sets wobbling with embarrassment. It’s much more difficult to bite the bullet and tell a director to go back to the drawing board when they are also a directorial colleague. What the Royal Opera needs is the London equivalent of Aurélie Dupont – someone who loves the company and can direct in the company’s best interests, unclouded by the distraction of creating new works. Elaine Padmore fulfilled that role very well at Covent Garden previously, as well as at Wexford and Royal Danish. Let choreographers choreograph. Let opera directors direct. But let our artistic leaders lead.