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10.06.10

Black Swan's Man in Tights

Choreographing Darren Aronofsky's thriller not only brought Benjamin Millepied into the spotlight, but also led to his romance with Natalie Portman. Rebecca Dana on the budding ballet star.

Actress Natalie Portman gave birth to a baby boy, People magazine reported Tuesday. It’s the first child for the Oscar winner, 30, and her fiancé, choreographer Benjamin Millepied. Portman had kept the sex of the baby and the possible name under wraps before his birth, saying “I think it’s a Jewish thing to be kind of superstitious. You don’t do any of the baby stuff before the baby arrives.” Portman and Millepied met on the set of her Oscar-winning movie, Black Swan.

In October, The Daily Beast's Rebecca Dana talked to Millepied about their romance, ballet, and Black Swan.

Ballerino Benjamin Millepied hasn’t had much time for reading this fall, between traveling to Venice for the premiere of Black Swan, which he choreographed and in which he plays a small role; attending rehearsals for Thursday night’s premiere of the New York City Ballet, which he choreographed and in which he’ll dance; making his modeling debut, in a campaign for Club Monaco; and conducting a sub rosa romance with Natalie Portman, about which both have gone to great lengths not to breathe a word.

But in spare moments, he’s been working his way through two books. The first is a yellowed copy of Igor Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, which he’s already read. The second, which he confesses reluctantly, with embarrassment, is Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. “It was a gift.”

He looks down, shaking his head.

“Natalie.”

It was a good gift, actually. Considering Millepied’s career track of late, Portman’s 33-year-old boyfriend would have made an ideal case study for Gladwell’s examination on the origins of superstardom.

Millepied is a laser-eyed, ripply abbed Frenchman, a prodigious choreographer with ambitions that run to fashion, Hollywood, and beyond and a physique seemingly designed for topless spreads in Details. (He has a Bauhaus tattoo chiseled into his torso.) If he isn’t a superstar just yet, he’s certainly well on his way.

The son of a modern dancer, Millepied grew up partly in Senegal and spent three years studying classical ballet at the Conservatoire National de Lyon. His good fortune and impeccable genes propelled him through a series of early honors and awards, including an opportunity in his early twenties to originate a principal role in a piece by Jerome Robbins. After building a big name for himself in the ballet world, he exploded into popular culture this year, drawing mainstream attention in a way no classical dancer has since Mikhail Baryshnikov—unless you count fellow ballerino and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

Gallery: Men in Tights

From whom?

Like Baryshnikov, he’s managed to parlay talent and movie-star good looks into a career that spans the entertainment industry. And like Baryshnikov, “he practically defines sexy for the modern age,” said Ann Watson, an executive at Club Monaco, which put Millepied in its fall campaign, shot by photography scion Victor Demarchelier.

All this attention is new to Millepied, who’s mild-mannered, soft-spoken, and plainly uncomfortable talking about himself.

“I will never be a star,” said Millepied. “When I see the attention movie stars get, it doesn’t make me want to be in that position at all.”

“I don’t have an agent, I don’t have a publisher,” he said over lunch—a pillow-size Croque Monsieur consumed in five bites—near Lincoln Center one recent afternoon. “Actually I do have an agent now. Sorry. It’s only been a month.”

Who’s his agent?

“Well, actually, I have several.”

So it’s not that new. Millepied has been with the City Ballet since 1995, becoming a solo dancer two years after that. He turned his attention to choreography in the early Aughts and began producing his own works in 2002, under the name Dances Concertantes. “I’ve always wanted to choreograph,” he said. “I used to make little dances for myself all the time as a kid.”

Among his recent productions is Plainspoken, which will debut the City Ballet’s season on Oct. 7, and One Thing Leads to Another, which the Dutch National Ballet will perform next week, in costumes designed by Rodarte’s Mulleavy sisters—“I’m in love with them,” he said.

When we met, he was considering a commission from Kanye West.

“He has an idea for this song, which I think is totally inappropriate,” he said. “But I haven’t talked to him yet, so who knows.”

Millepied’s big mainstream break came last year, when acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky asked him to choreograph his forthcoming psychological thriller, which drew critical raves when it screened at the Venice Film Festival. The movie stars Portman and Mila Kunis as rival ballerinas. Millepied also had a small, six-line part in the film.

His job was teaching Portman and the other actors to appear convincingly as ballerinas who’d been studying dance their entire lives. This required choreographing dances that “looked like good dancing but was not too difficult”—to make it so each actress “was still able to do it and not look like a jackass,” in Kunis’ words.

“The first time I saw Natalie take a dance class, it was over Skype,” he said. “She’d done a little bit of dancing as a girl, but she had to be retrained—trained properly—to get the coordination right.”

He has nothing but praise for the actors’ work in the film, but says being around celebrities has made the spotlight even less appealing. In Venice, he and Portman seemingly were at pains not to appear side by side in any photos. Back in New York, he’s hesitant to say what neighborhood he lives in, for fear of attracting the paparazzi.

“I will never be a star,” said Millepied, who claims to spend his down time reading and “working a lot by myself at home. “When I see the attention movie stars get, it doesn’t make me want to be in that position at all.”

At this point, he may not have much of a choice.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.