Dancers are human, which means they're bound to make mistakes from time to time, both on and off the stage. But what happens when those mistakes burn bridges? In an industry so small, is it possible for choreographers and performers to recover?In a moment of vulnerability, three-time Emmy Award winning choreographer Mia Michaels opened up to Dance Magazine about some of the bridges she herself has burned, the lengths she's gone to in order to rebuild and the peace she's made with the new direction her career has taken because of them. —Haley Hilton
In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.
Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.
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.
Broadway bound: Barrington Stage Company’s On the Town. Photo by Kevin Sprague, Courtesy Barrington Stage Co.
The new season is already under way: Holler If Ya Hear Me opened in June and there are more shows coming, of course. The musicals listed below were scheduled to open at press time, and if the stars align—but only if the stars align—they will arrive some time between now and the Tony deadline in May.
On the Town This is the 1944 hit that introduced a young ballet choreographer named Jerome Robbins to Broadway. A much-expanded version of Fancy Free, it’s an ode to New York as seen by three sailors en route to World War II. Joshua Bergasse, late of NBC’s Smash, takes his first Broadway bow as a choreographer in this revival, directed by John Rando (Urinetown) and starring Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Clyde Alves and New York City Ballet principal Megan Fairchild. Starts Sept. 20 at the Lyric.
The Last Ship The composer, Sting, is the marquee attraction in this tale of an English shipbuilding town, but director Joe Mantello (Wicked) and choreographer Steven Hoggett (Once) have fans, too. Starts Sept. 29 at the Neil Simon.
Honeymoon in Vegas Andrew Bergman reworks his wacky 1992 film comedy, this time with songs by Jason Robert Brown (Bridges of Madison County). Dances are by Denis Jones, a regular at the Paper Mill Playhouse, where this production originated. Starts Nov. 18 at the Brooks Atkinson.
Left: Complete with Elvis, Paper Mill’s Honeymoon in Vegas. Photo by Jerry Dalia, Courtesy Paper Mill Playhouse
On the Twentieth Century The Roundabout Theatre Company revives this 1978 musical by Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, addressing one of life’s crucial questions: Will the shenanigans of a megalomaniac Broadway producer, a flamboyant Hollywood diva and a loopy lady evangelist derail a luxury train bound for New York? Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher are on board, along with director Scott Ellis and choreographer Warren Carlyle. Begins Feb. 12 at the American Airlines Theatre.
The King and I Shall they dance? Of course they shall, even though she’s an English schoolmarm and he’s the king of Siam. Bartlett Sher directs Kelli O’Hara, who will polka with Ken Watanabe. The choreography is the Jerome Robbins original, with musical staging by Christopher Gattelli. Starts March 12 at the Vivian Beaumont.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum James Corden, the endearing British comic who won the 2012 Tony for his amped-up turn in One Man, Two Guvnors, is reportedly on his way back to Broadway as yet another servant, the endearing slave Pseudolus. This revival of Stephen Sondheim’s delicious 1962 farce is to be directed by Alex Timbers (Rocky). Starts in March.
All That Glitters The life of Liberace, written, directed and choreographed by Alexander DeJong. Starts in spring.
An American in Paris Christopher Wheeldon used the glorious Gershwin score for a narrative ballet at NYCB in 2005, when a projected Broadway musical based on the classic Gene Kelly movie collapsed. Now it’s on again, and director/choreographer Wheeldon has once more gone to NYCB, this time for a leading man: principal Robert Fairchild. Starts in spring.
Finding Neverland Marc Forster’s 2004 film about how J. M. Barrie came to write Peter Pan gets a song-and-dance makeover from director Diane Paulus and choreographer Mia Michaels. Starts in spring.
Gigi The beloved 1958 movie musical of Belle Époque Paris was first staged on Broadway in 1973. It returns under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, with choreography by Joshua Bergasse. Starts in spring.