Off Stage: Mia Michaels Unplugged

Mia MichaelsOn television’s So You Think You Can Dance, Emmy award-winning choreographer and judge Mia Michaels seems undeterred by Nigel Lythgoe, unfazed by the screaming from Mary Murphy and nonplussed by the whole audience scene. Recently the Emmy-winning choreographer took time to break out of the television box and showed up for a workshop that was sponsored by a persistent staff from the Elite Dance By Damion studio at The Chadwick banquet and meeting facility in Wexford.

The executives at Capezio would have been gnashing their teeth. There were over a hundred young dancers, most clothed in tee shirts (some of the “Flashdance” variety), knit tops and sports bras, often paired with boy shorts. Bare feet, tube socks and footies were de rigueur, with not a dance shoe in sight. It was much like a mini-audition for SYTYCD.

They came and they stretched and stretched some more under the warm-up guidance of Damian Kush himself before Michaels came in (a little late), accompanied by her assistant, Teddy. (Everyone’s on a first name basis on SYTYCD, but with a little probing, I find that his last name is Forance.) She calls him, “one of the finest dancers in contemporary dance today.”

Michaels looks comfortable in maroon sweatpants and a black tee shirt emblazoned with her own dance workshop venture, “Pulse.” Her platinum blonde pixie is held firmly in place by a wide black scarf, where gold hoop earrings dangle tantalizingly.

Without much ado, she proclaims that she will teach the students the combination from the SYTYCD segment in Las Vegas (where the judges whittle down the finalists) during the first hour session. Gavin DeGraw’s lyrics slowly start to permeate the room.

Belief makes things re-e-eal…

The dancers begin to get caught up in her organically- derived dance vocabulary, accented by  “whoosh, ba, ba, ga-a-a” and a drum roll of the tongue. “Don’t get caught up in structures of counts — that’s limiting,” Michaels says. “Everything should look disconnected but connected.”

Makes things fe-e-el, feel alright…

Michaels is full of helpful hints. “Try to dig into the internal — it feels like my organs are moving.” She offers her own perspectives on dance and life. “It’s not about you looking good — it’s about you exploring the unknown. Until you learn to embrace the unknown, you’re never going to embrace that grand step in life.

Belief makes things true, things like you, you and I…

She repeatedly urges them to “seize the moment,” “be aggressive, take yourself to the next level,” “go for it.”

Belief...” and they have it. Says 17-year old Alissa Kasunich, “It’s amazing the way she moves. Her entire life is about dance and making others feel the same.” Her sister Ashley, 20, a dance student at Point Park University, calls it “a once in a lifetime experience.” Fifteen-year old Nicole Berezo adds, “There’s so much detail in all the movements she gave. Then you just do your own thing and hope it works!”

After a lunch break, Michaels teaches another hour-long session with an unnamed combination where the choreography again seems to emanate from an emotional center. Some begin to tire, but she admonishes them to disperse with the “toilet face” and “be present. Your spirit dances first and your body will follow.”

Afterward Michaels sits down for another hour-long question-and-answer session. But first she begins with her own story — how her dad had a dance studio in Florida, where she started at age two, “in diapers, swinging a bottle.”

As a result, Michaels came to like all forms of dance — “anything that’s honest and effective.” She did her first choreography at age eight, when, every Friday night, she created a show. By 18, she had her own company in Miami. “I was always the ‘big girl,” she explains. “I used all that passion that I had and put it into the choreography.”

She moved to New York. Then came what she calls her “big break” — to be a choreographer for “Celine Dion’s A New Day” in Las Vegas. Michaels quickly packed two bags and her dog and moved to Belgium, then Vegas.

“My whole life changed,” she says. Lythgoe subsequently called her after he saw the Dion show and invited Michaels to be the contemporary judge on SYTYCD. She has also worked with Madonna, Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan and others. Upcoming projects include Cirque du Soleil’s newest show.

But first she is forthcoming with answers to the students’ questions:

  • On Nigel: “He’s cool to work for — he gives a lot of freedom to the choreographers.”
  • On Judging: “We go off and fight–they edit us a lot.”
  • Favorite Season: Season Three with Danny, Jaimie and Sabra.
  • On Katee: Michaels called Season Four’s top woman “a faker — she can’t straighten her legs. But, no matter what, she delivered.”
  • On Competition: Michaels admitted that she hates competitions because dancers can lose their artistry. It was a gutsy statement, given that many students in attendance performed competitively.
  • Favorite Choreographer: American William Forsythe of Ballett Frankfurt (1984-2004) and The Forsythe Company (2005-present).
  • On Joshua: Michaels didn’t want last season’s winner to take the prize and walked out on a rehearsal because of his laziness. “He’s a flirt — I love him and hate him at the same time.” Recently she refused to give him a job.
  • SYTYCD: “It’s about personality, not about dance. It’s a television show.”

As I left, Michaels and Forance were still signing autographs and generously posing for pictures with the dancers. Next stop? SYTYCD Canada.

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One Response to Off Stage: Mia Michaels Unplugged

  1. Thanks for writing this. I really like Madonna. She’s such a fantastic strong woman role model.

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