The "So You Think You Can Dance" choreographer transitions to Broadway.
Mia Michaels. Photo by Jim Lafferty.
The rehearsal room throbs with an upbeat, unmistakable mix of high good humor and careful rigor, as Mia Michaels runs a few numbers from Finding Neverland. The show, based on the 2004 film about J.M. Barrie and the children who inspired Peter Pan, represents a departure for Michaels, who’s perhaps the most famous choreographer never to have choreographed a Broadway musical.
Above: Laura Michelle Kelly and J.M. Barrie understudy Kevin Kern lead the cast. Photo by Jim Lafferty.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says, “because of the hours, the amount of time it takes to do an original musical.” The clock started ticking two years ago, at Diane Paulus’ American Repertory Theater, which presented the world premiere last summer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And doing Neverland, Michaels says, has changed her profoundly. Still, wearing black leggings and a roomy black cardigan, on her feet tweaking a lift or demonstrating a precise arm position, she’s the familiar, in-charge choreographer who spent nine years on “So You Think You Can Dance.” “Push the clarity,” she tells the cast when they all reach upwards in a stylized tableau. Later, she’s urging them to “really take up space,” spreading her arms and veering about “like when you’re a kid and you’re flying around like an airplane.”
Right: Sawyer Nunes and Aidan Gemme. Photo by Jim Lafferty.
Everyone seems to be having fun, and it’s not just because the number portrays a rambunctious romp in the park, or because the bouncy song by British popsters Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy is matched by Michaels’ bouncy movement. “We are a family,” she says, “and it is the most amazing feeling.” It’s a theme she returns to again and again, this joy she’s found in her Neverland collaboration. Throughout her career—which includes not just “SYTYCD” but concert tours, dance companies (one of them, RAW, her own) and a sprinkling of musical theater—she’s been a solo act. “I’ve always isolated myself and been on my own journey, just doing my art, my craft,” she notes. “And now, all of a sudden, I have this amazing, creative, warm family with arms open. It’s changed my life.”
A key member of that family is Paulus, the Tony-winning director. “There’s a lot of female energy in there,” Michaels notes. “I’ve worked with many male directors through film and television, and they’ve always kind of let me do my own thing. With Diane, there’s an intimacy in our process, where everyone’s hands-on. Probably it’s because, being women, we’re very passionate about every single moment and we nurture the moment. Especially her being a mom, she knows how to nurture the creative process and really pull it from people. Gestation. Gestation.” And working with the child actors in the cast has “softened” Michaels, allowing her a new kind of connection.
Left: Kern with Colin Cunliffe. Photo by Jim Lafferty.
“Having a female director was key to tapping into the emotional and the intimate moments of this piece,” she adds. Regular viewers of “SYTYCD” know such moments abound in Michaels’ choreography. “The show taught me that I was a storyteller,” she says. But how will her totally contemporary idiom work in Neverland’s Edwardian England? “The score is pop,” she replies. “So you’ve already crossed that line. It’s not a museum piece.” She adds that because her movement has always “come from a classical space, it works in this time period.”
Nor is she thrown by the absence of the camera to underline or camouflage specific moves. “I came from the stage first,” she explains. “And I always created for the viewers in the studio. Then I would adapt the camera to the piece.” Grateful as she is to “SYTYCD” (“If it wasn’t for that show I wouldn’t be here today,” she acknowledges), “I was so ready to be back on the stage. Live theater, live performance—it’s real, it’s honest, and what you get is what you get.”
Right: Fred Ogdaard and Jaime Verazin. Photo by Jim Lafferty.
Dance captains: Jaime Verazin, a former MOMIX dancer making her Broadway debut, and an assistant, Julius Anthony Rubio, who made his debut in 2011 in Wonderland. Both joined Neverland after auditioning for swing jobs.
Assistants: Verazin also serves in this capacity, along with Kevin Wilson, a Los Angeles–based dancer-choreographer.
Dance ensemble: “There are seven dancers, the rest are actor-movers. But, believe me, they’re dancing,” says Michaels. “Actors—my god, they have so much to bring to the table. It’s like this big library of knowledge and creativity and humor, and it just opened up my eyes as a choreographer.”
Pre-show warm-up: “When we start we have a full circle. A moment where we all connect and we really hold hands and we look at every single person in the eyes,” says Michaels. “In our own quiet way, we go through the journey that we’ve had together. It’s the most amazing spiritual energy and connection.”
Above: Jonathan Ritter and Emma Pfaeffle. Below: Jonathan Ritter and Cast. Photos by Jim Lafferty.
The dancers file into an audition room. They are given a number and asked to wait for registration to finish before the audition starts. At the end of the room, behind a table and a computer (and probably a number of mobile devices), there I sit, doing audio tests and updating the audition schedule as the room fills up with candidates. The dancers, more nervous than they need to be, see me, typing, perhaps teasing my colleagues, almost certainly with a coffee cup at my side.
By itself, a competition trophy won't really prepare you for professional life. Sometimes it is not even a plus. "Some directors are afraid that a kid who wins a lot of medals will come to their company with too many expectations," says Youth America Grand Prix artistic director Larissa Saveliev. "Directors want to mold young dancers to fit their company."
More valuable than taking home a title from a competition is the exposure you can get and the connections you can make while you're there. But how can you take advantage of the opportunity?
New York Live Arts opens its 2017-18 season with A Love Supreme, a revised work by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and collaborator Salva Sanchis. Known as a choreographer of pure form, pattern and musicality, De Keersmaeker can bring a visceral power to the stage without the use of narrative. She has taken this 2005 work to John Coltrane's famous jazz score of the same title and recast it for four young men of her company Rosas, giving it an infusion of new energy.
Photo by Anne Van Aerschot
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.