Breaking all the rules: Exclusive interview with Mia Michaels

EDITOR’S NOTE: The first national touring production of Finding Neverland opens in Denver on Dec. 20. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore was given exclusive access to the entire creative team, and we are posting his extensive interviews in a five-part series here on the DCPA NewsCenter. Part 2: Choreographer Mia Michaels. Next: Book writer and playwright James Graham.

Finding Neverland choreographer shares rebel spirit
with Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie

By John Moore

For the DCPA NewsCenter

Mia Michaels, the Emmy-winning choreographer best known for her work on “So You Can Think You Can Dance,” did not have a normal childhood.

Mia Michaels Quote How not normal? She never knew the stories of Peter Pan or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland until she was an adult. 

“I was in my 40s,” she said. “There were no fairy tales. I never knew what that was. That just wasn’t my growing up.”

Instead, Michaels was usually in a dance studio as a kid. “So nothing else really existed,” she said. Which might make her childhood the saddest story in all of Neverland – if not for the fact that wee Michaels was carving out her eventual place as one of the most acclaimed and highly sought choreographers of the modern dance generation.

“You know what?” she said. “Because I didn’t grow up with fairy tales, I just create my own. That’s what I do.”

It was only when Director Diane Paulus approached her about choreographing the new Broadway musical Finding Neverland that Michaels started to discover not only the story of Peter Pan, but of J.M. Barrie, the like-minded playwright who created him.

“It was another world, and it was so brilliant,” Michaels said. “I fell in love with stories that take you to all these wonderful worlds.”

The stage was Michaels’ first love, but her rocket guided her toward television, where she spent five seasons as a coach and judge on “So You Can Think You Can Dance.” But after only one season, Michaels remembers saying to herself: “I’m bored. I’m bored. I’m bored.”

She found her calling – and new direction – in her grief. On the 100th episode of the show in 2009, Michaels introduced her now iconic “Bench Piece,” danced by Travis Wall and Heidi Groskreutz, as a response to the death of her father. It told the story of a woman meeting her father in Heaven, and it won Michaels the first of two Emmy Awards.

Using dance to tell stories was a new idea in modern-dance circles. “When I started, it really wasn’t so much about storytelling,” Michaels said. “It was more about concept.”

But breaking rules is something Michaels does organically, she said, “without even trying.” That comes, she said, from her need to constantly seek newness. “So it should come as no surprise that Paulus, who is known for assembling creative teams from non-traditional backgrounds, called Michaels and invited her to attend an early reading of Finding Neverland, which was then a budding musical about how Barrie came to bring Peter Pan to life in culturally repressed Victorian England. Thus began Michaels’ introduction to the boy who would never grow up.

“I was at the reading, and all I remember was sobbing in my chair because it was about this artist who was stuck, like me,” Michaels said. “It was just a very raw, human story that I felt everybody could connect to because it was about loss and love and creativity. I knew that I had to do it in that moment. And the rest is history.”

Michaels related to the story of Peter Pan. But she really related to the story of the man who created him. “J.M. Barrie’s story is about that child within,” she said. “He was an artist who was always creating, and he got stuck, just like me. Once he had his breakthrough into this unknown place of his imagination, everyone thought he was crazy. I mean, not even Barrie knew what he was doing. He was making what seemed like madness at the time. And he became legendary for it.

“I just find that as an artist, that should be the goal every single time: To go to the unknown and go to the scary place and go to the places that don’t make sense because they will make sense at the end. And I think Peter Pan is that.”

Finding Neverland. Laura Michelle Kelly. Photo by Carol RoseggLaura Michelle Kelly from the Broadway company of ‘Finding Neverland.’ Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Here, in greater detail, are more excerpts from our in-depth conversation with ‘Finding Neverland’ choreographer Mia Michaels:

John Moore: Peter Pan has been so iconic in our pop culture for 100 years. But not for you. When did the story finally come into your consciousness?

Mia Michaels: When I was asked to do Peter Pan, that’s when I first started doing research on it. It was another world, and it was so brilliant.

John Moore: Now that you have discovered Peter Pan, why do you think the tale continues to fascinate storytellers 100 years later?

Mia Michaels: I find stories like Peter Pan to be very “out there.” They challenge your imagination. They challenge your child within. They challenge everything that we know because they take you somewhere else. When you read about Peter Pan, you just have to go on that journey and try to understand it. Peter Pan is one of those things that makes you go “hmm.” What’s the backstory? What does it all mean?

John Moore: When you left the TV show, you specifically talked about wanting to expand your creative horizons and take on new challenges. What is it about Broadway that fulfilled that need in you?

Mia Michaels: Well, I did almost 10 years of television, and when I started the show, I was very much a concert choreographer. Dance then was all about complexity and phrases and human movement. It really wasn’t so much about storytelling. It was more about concept. I did one season of “So You Think You Can Dance?” and I remember just going, “There’s got to be more.” And so I started exploring storytelling. I fell into it so organically. The first story that I told was the Bench Piece, which I won an Emmy for, and it came out of me so naturally. I mean, I started exploring storytelling as a concept in a matter of 90 seconds: Trying to tell a story with the human body, and really make sense of it. I just fell in love with storytelling and didn’t even know that was inside of me until I did “So You Think You Can Dance?” And then after a couple years of that, I knew I wanted to go back to the stage.

Mia Michaels QuoteJohn Moore: You mentioned the Bench Piece, and that was obviously a watershed moment in your career. It was written of you: “That was a turning point for the show, and Mia Michaels changed the game forever.” When you set out to do with the Bench Dance, were you out to change the rules of dance?

Mia Michaels: I didn’t, no. I’m one of those people who is always breaking rules, but I’m not ever setting out to break rules. It’s just that I’m constantly seeking newness. I’m constantly seeking the unknown. That’s very scary for a lot of people. Some people would call me a Banshee rebel artist, because I’m not afraid to break new ground. I didn’t know, honestly, that I was going to create the Bench Piece when I went into rehearsal that day. I’m very instinctual, and I create in the moment. I create from my truth, and from what I know, and from my life experience. I tend to think that when you are an artist, and when ego and self get out of the way, then you’re a vessel for something much greater than yourself – and something much greater comes through you. I try to get out of the way. When the Bench Piece was created, it was a moment in time that was like, “Boom, OK, there it is.” It’s interesting because, yeah I don’t even remember a moment of how it was created.

John Moore: Well, luckily it lives forever on YouTube.

Mia Michaels: Yes, I can always look at it there.

John Moore: You have said you created that dance as way to work through your grief after the loss of your father. How did the Bench Dance help you?

Mia Michaels: That was my therapeutic outlet. When my father died, I was like, “Where did he go?” I watched him take his last breath, and it was like his spirit just went out, and there was this empty shell there in his place. It was clear that this was not my father. Where did he go? And so I was kind of obsessing over that question, and the fact that we’ll never know the answer until we get to the other side. When people who lose loved ones, you just have to believe that you’re going to see them again. That’s what you hang on to. You have to believe that, because that’s what gets you through the morning. And for me, that means reuniting in Heaven with my dad. And so, in the dance, sitting on one side of the cloud and him seeing me and waving – that moment was very consoling for me. It was very hard for me to create that piece because I couldn’t stop crying the whole time. But it was really important for me. I really think all of my work is just my life through my art.  It’s a part of me, and it’s a part of my therapy.

John Moore: So Diane Paulus approached you. I imagine it must have been intimidating to get a call from someone who’s been named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME Magazine.

Mia Michaels: Yes.

Finding Neverland, Denver Center_Finding Neverland, Sawyer Nunes and Aidan Gemme.  Photo by Carol RoseggJohn Moore: But part of her genius has to be in knowing who to call. Like you and other members of your Finding Neverland creative team who don’t come from a traditional theatre background. That kind of out-of-the-box thinking is part of what makes her great, isn’t it?

Mia Michaels: I totally agree. I think that’s why we get along so well, and why we create so well together – because she’s not afraid, either. She likes to surround herself with really creative people. It’s like this very powerful force that happens between her team and herself. She is not one of those directors who stifles creativity; she encourages it. She never, ever stops any creativity. We throw it against the wall and see what’s right. She loves to see it all, and hear it all before she makes her decisions. I think the people who make the greatest directors are those who hire really creative people and then they let them create.

(Pictured at right: Sawyer Nunes and Aidan Gemme in ‘Finding Neverland.’ Photo by Carol Rosegg)

John Moore: So I’m curious about the approach you took to Finding Neverland. If you’re a rule-breaker, tell us what are those signature rules that you have broken here?

Mia Michaels: Ours was definitely not a traditional Broadway approach. The choices we made musically, directionally and choreographically were just not traditional. Finding Neverland is its own thing and it has its own unique voice. And I think it’s very unexpected. It has humor to it. It has emotion. And there are a lot of unexpected twists and turns. When I was creating the vocabulary for it, it took on a life of quirkiness. It lives in its own world in Neverland. Every project has its own personality. It tells you what it wants to be. For me, because this is my work, I don’t really think of it as different. But people who see the show go, “Wow, it’s so different.” And they are right. Everything about Finding Neverland is very different. 

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

John Moore: Can you tell me one generally accepted dance rule that you would love to see obliterated?

Mia Michaels: I come from a very trained background. But as much as I love technique, and I know how important it is – there’s a part of me that thinks technique also stops creativity.  You can get so caught up in the technique of it that you lose the freedom of being a true artist. I wish sometimes I had no knowledge of technique at all. I hate technique, actually, because it never leaves your body. I wonder what my creativity would be if it was just some kind of wild animal.

John Moore: The list of stars you have worked with is a bit boggling, starting with Madonna and Celine Dion. But you are also known for your passion for quality dance education. It must be a lot of fun for you to choreograph for kids who don’t know who you are. 

Mia Michaels: It definitely is. Sometimes it’s better when you’re working with kids who don’t know who you are because then they don’t get caught up in the celebrity of it. It’s not for any other reason but to come into the room and work and grow and become a better artist. I love it, actually, when nobody knows me. Inspiring the next generation is really, really important for me. In fact, that is more important than any actual step I could teach them. I teach them about professionalism and work ethic and seeking out your own voice as an artist and not trying to conform to anyone else. Those are lessons you can’t learn in any school. My whole career has just been trial and error. I really had no guidance other than my instincts, and I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons along the way. So if there’s anything I can do to help the younger generation avoid those pitfalls I hit along the way, then it is very important for me to do that. I tell them to stand in their own uniqueness.

John Moore: Speaking of celebrities you have worked with, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you your thoughts on the passing of Prince.

Mia Michaels: Shocking. Very shocking. Big loss. Huge. I worked with him for a very short time, but it was a very impactful time for me as an artist. He was incredible. He was just free. He’s a genius. That word shouldn’t be thrown around easily, but he is a genius, by far. Even though he’s gone, what he left behind was awesome. What he did is just mind-blowing. He changed the game. He was a rule-breaker and he was a rebel and he wasn’t afraid of change. He was a chameleon. I think it’s important to constantly be evolving and changing. That’s the only way we continue to grow, instead of doing the same thing over and over again.

John Moore: So we have established what you, Prince and J.M. Barrie have in common there.

Mia Michaels: That’s not bad company. Not at all.

John Moore: Finding Neverland is going to be new for most people who see it on the road. What kind of theatrical experience are people in for if they come to see this show in their town?

Mia Michaels: What I love most about our show is that it’s from the heart. That’s the only way I can describe it. It’s also important to point out that Diane made a deliberate decision not to fly people on rigging. We decided to do it manually through the human body and doing lifts as dancers and movers. So they fly through the air that way instead of using wires. It feels so homemade. I’m Italian, and our version of Peter Pan feels to me like Grandma’s Sunday sauce for the soul. One of my favorite scenes is at the end. That’s all I that I am going to say. But it takes you to a place that is so unexpected and so beautiful. It’s not glossy. It’s very real. And I love that.

Bonus coverage: Thoughts on Colorado’s Mandy Moore:

Mandy MooreJohn Moore: I also feel I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that one of the favorite daughters of Colorado dance is Mandy Moore.

Mia Michaels: I love her. That’s a special life force, right there. She is a force to be reckoned with. She is a warrior, she is smart and she continues to do great things. She’s a teacher – a great teacher – and she’s an inspiration. I love her. She’s a powerful woman who’s out there making it happen and inspiring generations, as well as directing and creating in the industry. I have a lot of respect for her. She’s a special, special girl.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Finding Neverland: Ticket information
• Dec 20, 2016, through Jan. 1, 2017
• Buell Theatre
• Cast talkback: After the Dec. 21 performance
• ASL interpreted, Audio-described and Open Captioned performance: Dec. 30
• Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
• Groups: Call 303-446-4829 

Selected Previous NewsCenter coverage:
Finding Neverland
creative team, Part 1: Director Diane Paulus
Diane Paulus on the rise of ‘adventure theatre’
Finding Neverland flies onto Denver Center’s 2016-17 Broadway season

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