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.
What happens during a performance is the product of the painstaking process of realizing an artistic vision. Whether held beforehand, afterward, offsite or online, audience discussions tend not to be so preordained, easily thrown off track without a skilled moderator at the helm.
"I'm someone who dreaded talkbacks and Q&As," admits Bill Bragin, former director of public programming at Lincoln Center. "While I was in New York, a lot of the time it was just audience members trying to show off how smart they were."
These events present a pile of difficult questions: How much do you reveal about a piece before it's shown? How can a conversation designed to hit key points feel casual and spontaneous? How do you cater to the needs of diverse attendees, from novice dancegoers to lifelong fans to scholars and critics? And how do you avoid smothering dance with language, flattening all its complexity?
If you think becoming a trainee or apprentice is the only path to gaining experience in a dance company environment, think again.
The University of Arizona, located in the heart of Tucson, acclimates dancers to the pace and rigor of company life while offering all the academic opportunities of a globally-ranked university. If you're looking to get a head-start on your professional dance career—or to just have a college experience that balances company-level training and repertory with rigorous academics—the University of Arizona's undergraduate and graduate programs have myriad opportunites to offer:
Yes, we realize it's only August. But we can't help but to already be musing about all the incredible dance happenings of 2019.
We're getting ready for our annual Readers' Choice feature, and we want to hear from you about the shows you can't stop thinking about, the dance videos that blew your mind and the artists you discovered this year who everyone should know about.
I dance to encourage others. The longer I dance, the more I see that much of my real work is to speak life-giving words to my fellow artists. This is a multidimensionally grueling profession. I count it a privilege to remind my colleagues of how they are bringing beauty into the world through their craft. I recently noticed significant artistic growth in a fellow dancer, and when I verbalized what I saw, he beamed. The impact of positive feedback is deeper than we realize.