With his Oscar-winning wife, actress Natalie Portman, adding to his glamour quotient, Millepied raised the company's global profile. Fundraising spiked.
Now he's leaving, having announced Thursday that he is quitting his post at one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world to return to a small start-up in Los Angeles called L.A. Dance Project. His announcement comes at an awkward time, halfway through his second season, and on the eve of unveiling his brand-new ballet. It premieres Friday.
Millepied's successes may have been too much, too soon.
"He tried to do too much at once, at every level," said Laura Cappelle, a Paris-based journalist who covers the Paris Opera Ballet for the Financial Times, Dance Magazine and other publications. She has spent a decade watching the company, and says that the perception in some reports that the Paris Opera is old-fashioned and resistant to change is wrong.
When Millepied came in, "the company was quite happy with the idea of change. They wanted change," she said. "But the way he brought it was not the right one."
Millepied, who was a New York City Ballet principal for 10 years, has complained in interviews about his dancers not being good enough, and he has bemoaned the company's strict system of promoting dancers only after grueling contests. He brought in new choreography, but ignored works by choreographers important to the company's heritage and beloved by the French, such as Serge Lifar, Roland Petit and Maurice Bejart. For every positive change he brought, it seems, there was a negative.
"He'd been criticizing the company publicly since he came in," said Cappelle, "and he did it in middle of the run of 'La Bayadere.' The dancers were very upset by that." Referring to the ballerinas in the technically challenging "vision" scene from "La Bayadere," he told Le Figaro in December: "Being a dancer is to express, not to look like a wallpaper pattern!"
Millepied is French, and trained as a child in Lyon, but he was never part of the Paris Opera system. He didn't study at its school, nor did he dance with the company. He left France as a teenager for the School of American Ballet in New York, then spent his career with New York City Ballet. He met Portman while both were acting in the film "Black Swan," which he also choreographed.
"I think he remained an outsider to the company instead of integrating into it, and taking responsibility for the company," said Cappelle.
"I don't think he had the patience and persistence to go all the way through with it."
The situation is in some ways similar to the Royal Ballet's appointment of Australian dancer Ross Stretton as director in 2001. He, too, favored new works over the heritage pieces, and he proved a controversial and short-term pick who left after a year. He was succeeded by former ballerina Monica Mason. Similarly, Aurelie Dupont, a former Paris Opera principal, will take over from Millepied, in a clear message of continuity.