Remembering Michael Jackson
Wade Robson, choreographer
Michael's movement was this amazing amalgamation of all his influences, filtered through this beast of a dancer. His lines were so dynamic. He understood the strength of simple movement delivered with incredible precision and energy. An invert of the legs and an extension of the arm were so much more powerful than 15 pirouettes. His energy shot up from the earth. God danced through him.
I remember the first time he taught me the moonwalk at the dance studio at Neverland. I was 7, I think. I remember standing at the ballet barre and him teaching me to push back one foot at a time, teaching me the weight distribution on the balls of the feet. “Now just go, push off, and fly!" he said. That night I couldn't sleep. I had to get up every 15 minutes and do it again.
I learned altruism from him. In the entertainment industry, it's easy to get jaded. Despite all of the madness he went through, he had such an innocence. He trusted people, and in his heart, believed in them.
Brian Friedman, choreographer
Even in his most subtle moves, he forced you to watch him. No one hit as hard as he did. He's one of the only people who could stand still for 30 seconds, a minute, and not let you look away.
Thriller, Smooth Criminal, Ghost, and Captain EO molded me as a creator. Without projects like these, I would be afraid to take the risks I do. If Michael had just described the plot of Thriller, who would've ever believed him? But he made it anyway and it is the most iconic video ever.
He was the first person to have technical dancers from contemporary and ballet backgrounds dancing with Pop N' Taco. It was incredible to see him bringing the worlds together. He gave every audience member something to connect with.
At 14, I booked a job with him. At the end of the live show, I happened to be standing next to him. He put his head close to mine, pointed to the signs in the audience, and said, “I don't understand why all these people love me." Especially to a kid, it was so honest. He was saying “I'm normal." It put me in a position to always stay grounded.
Brian Thomas, teacher/choreographer
The first day of rehearsals for Michael's 30th- anniversary celebration everyone was terrified. When he came in to watch the choreography I had made for him, I said, “OK, you can sit over here." I looked over, and my son had put some candy and a picture he drew of Michael on his chair. I apologized, “My son must have done that." Michael fell on the floor laughing—he was literally rolling. He said, “Show me some dance moves" to my son. It broke the ice, so the dancers weren't so afraid. He could've been a diva but he was nice to everyone. That's what I remember most—his childlike spirit.
Buddha Stretch, teacher/Remember the Time music video choreographer
Michael's a combination of so many different styles and influences. I think his biggest influence was James Brown, with some Bob Fosse, some Fred Astaire, some Don Campbell and the Lockers, some Nicholas brothers, and later on, some hip hop. We were working on the video for “Remember the Time," and Michael wanted to learn everything that we did—any little movement, even if we were just playing around. He was so interested in what made us dancers, what made us do hip hop. He wanted to experience going to a club and dancing in a circle. We were going to dress him up in a hoodie, hat, jeans, and sneakers, but the last day, his security and his management talked him out of it.
Randy Allaire, co-founder of the Edge Performing Arts Center/MJ backup dancer
for eight years
How many stars can brand a step like he did? He affected generations of dancers. He pulled guys into the studio and made it OK for us to move. A lot of Michael's movement was dance, but he always tried to go for the pedestrian feel. As dancers, we were very careful to not look like dancers. We had to be more accessible.
Michael was very generous, a very good soul. There were definitely the two sides: the ultimate showman and the regular guy—however regular you could be as a superstar. But he controlled it all. He collaborated with many choreographers, but it was always MJ's vision and direction.
Chloe Arnold, tap dancer/teacher
He was 100 percent unique and heartfelt. To take our art seriously and realize how many people we can affect—that's something we can take from him. There are so few artists genuinely creating their style. With Michael, you could see a silhouette and immediately know it was him.
Jared Grimes, tap dancer
Michael Jackson was a human phenomenon. To me, he is up there with the seven wonders of the world—a god of dance. I remember when he popped out of the floor and stood still for five minutes at the Bucharest concert—I had never seen an aura that strong before.
Akram Khan, choreographer
When Michael Jackson came along with Thriller, my world changed. I thought, There's hope. He's closer to my color. I was in love with the fact that he had the power to draw people in, not only white people but people in general.
Jorma Elo, resident choreographer, Boston Ballet
Growing up, MJ inspired me to learn to dance and how to put together a great show. I remember getting together with friends before going to a party one Saturday night in the early '80s. Somebody had a VHS tape of him doing Billie Jean at the gala show where he first did the moonwalk. All the girls wanted to see it over and over again—it kept looping for hours. We never got to go out. MJ kind of destroyed that evening by being too good and magical.
Photo by Jonathan Exley/MJJ Productions Courtesy Sony BMG
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.