Michele Wiles has been a big name in the dance world for decades. After spending 15 years with the world-renowned American Ballet Theatre, with six of those years spent as a principal dancer, Wiles left the classical ballet world to start her own company called BalletNext. She turned a lot of heads when she left ABT at the peak of her career, and now she’s keeping those heads watching as she blends her classical training with her creative spirit as an artistic director and choreographer.
How did you get your start in dance?
My mother used to take aerobics classes, and I would go with her all the time. Normally, I would sit off to the side with my bottle and be totally preoccupied, but if a song came on that I really liked, I would go to the middle of the room and start dancing. The woman teaching the class suggested that I enrol in dance lessons. So I started taking tap and jazz at two and a half years old.
That went on for a while and I fell in love with dance. I would pretend the oven was a mirror and sing and act and dance to it, and make up funny outfits with my baby blanket, and wear baggy sweaters off my shoulder - this was when “Flashdance” had came out. Friends would come over and I’d dress them up in spandex and choreograph, when they desperately just wanted to play with cash registers and baby dolls.
My dance teachers mentioned that in order to improve my technique, I needed to take ballet. I think the goal at this point was the Rockettes. I was introduced to Renee Rosa, an awesome ballet teacher and beautiful, elegant lady, and from there I totally fell in love with ballet. I started watching Gelsey Kirkland in The Nutcracker, and I wore my hair like her and tried to do that variation like her.
From there it evolved, and I became more serious. Ballet is a very serious, technical, perfectionist route. Eventually, I did get a full scholarship to the Royal Ballet School, but my parents would have had to sign legal guardianship over and, for a 10-year-old, that wasn’t good. Instead, I moved to DC and attended the Kirov Academy and trained with the Russians for six years. I did all the ballet competitions and ended up moving to New York at 16 to join the American Ballet Theatre. For 15 years, I was with ABT working my way through the ranks before I left to start BalletNext in 2011.
What made you leave the conventional dance world to start BalletNext?
That’s a great question, and a lot of people are probably still scratching their heads. I guess I’d have to backtrack to when I was promoted to principal at ABT. As soon as I was promoted, I suffered a back injury and I was off for six months. That gave me time to think. I was suddenly sitting there thinking about how I felt, and I didn’t feel very good. I should have been on cloud nine because I was a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre - this had been my dream and focus for all of my life.
I had these horse blinders on, and then all of a sudden I was sidelined and the blinders came off. I realized I wanted my life to be more expansive. I wanted to get married and have children one day. I want to experience this art in a different kind of way. It was the "hitting your head against the ceiling" kind of feeling.
“BalletNext is a platform for professional dancers, musicians, and kids to expose the next generation to ballet in a unique, down-to-earth way."
I did stay as a principal dancer for six years, but eventually felt that it was time to move on. It was difficult to make that decision. I wanted to show that there was another way, and that you don’t have to retire at 35. That there can be something else. I'm not saying that being a ballet mistress isn’t creative, it just wasn’t for me. I wanted to grow more creatively with new work, create new dancers, and keep growing myself. I think in this past year, I've probably grown the most I ever have. Working with and learning from jazz musicians and a flex dancer from Brooklyn was probably one of the most fulfilling periods in my career.
What is your vision for BalletNext?
Classically trained dancers, live music, and all new choreography. And collaboration, because now I’m working with other artists who have no knowledge of ballet, just as I have no knowledge of their art forms. I think that’s what’s going to freshen up ballet and move it into the future. We need that energy, and we need to draw that audience.
I’ll always respect my classical ballet training because that’s my foundation. But I think now, with the state of the world and the subject of diversity, it’s important for the arts - as well as the financial state of the arts - to open up to other art forms, and not be so closed off to your own genre.
How was the transition from principal dancer to artistic director/business owner/choreographer?
All of those roles work as one, feeding one another. There’s a lot of negativity in dance, in striving for perfection. I’m trying to build a positive environment and instil that in the next generation.
I feel a massive responsibility to think in new ways to move the business forward, because the old model doesn’t work. Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. So I’ve extracted myself from that and I'm trying to reinvent.
With such a physically strenuous career, what do you do to maintain your health?
I learned through my back injury that you can be smarter about how you take care of yourself. I learned a lot about that through Marjorie Liebert. She’s a floor barre realignment teacher and friend that has helped me reevaluate how I dance in my 30s. I started doing floor barre with her about four years ago, realigning and working out muscles that hadn’t been worked. As a ballet dancer, you’re trained to have 180-degree turnout and suck your stomach into your spine, and if you don’t, it all falls down. But there’s another way to exist in that world while still being healthy.
You’re about to have your first child. Has that had an effect on how you view the company and your future goals?
I actually think it’s made me less focused! But in a good way. I think it will allow more expansiveness, and allow me to view things differently. Now, I don’t feel like I have to put so much emphasis on the dancer side of things. I’m allowing myself to let go of that and focus more on the business aspect. I have time to plan the future, and I’m enjoying being pregnant and having my belly out.
What’s in store for BalletNext?
I’m collaborating with University of California, Santa Barbara. I’m also starting a trainee program for BalletNext in Fall 2017, and doing a season at New York Live Arts in February 2018. I’ll be choreographing for Santa Barbara Festival Ballet in 2017.
Dance requires a balance between technicality and creativity. How do you maintain that balance with BalletNext?
You definitely need to have both, and it’s a balancing act all the time. There’s a saying: delicate balance between holding on and letting go. I learned that through my technique working with David Howard, who was my teacher for seven years. Through his classes, I had the freedom to discover how I needed to dance. I learned how to combine technique with feeling and musicality. After being so schooled in technique, one of his greatest pieces of advice to me was to just let go and take the class like the beginner in front of you.
As a release, I would cry sometimes just to let it all out. I would work, work, work, work, work, then when the show came, I’d let go and have fun. Now, I’m learning how not to be so extreme in order to have less emotional trauma. Letting go of that perfectionist mentality allows new creativity to come in, because you’re not drilling the same thing every single day.
What, choreographically, do you want to achieve with BalletNext?
I’d love to do a full-length jazz ballet and Tom Harrell, the legendary jazz musician who I’ve worked with in the past, was totally open to doing something with flex music mixed in. When I did “Something Sampled” it was an experiment with totally different artists. It was a new story - a start to something different for ballet. Some people didn't care for it, and others loved it. The best part was that it got people talking. It stirred people's emotions and beliefs. It brought opinions to the surface. Isn't this what art is all about? BalletNext is a platform for professional dancers, musicians, and kids to expose the next generation to ballet in a unique, down-to-earth way through our collaborations with the Bed Stuy YMCA and Compass after-school programs. The BalletNext trainee program starting next year will cover an important period for young dancers just out of high school, who aren't ready to go to college or a big company yet, who need to explore something different and discover their artistry before making that choice.
Photos by: Carmen Chan