The former ABT principal gives Ballet Next a whirl with Charles Askegard.
Mon Nov 14 2011
Photograph: Nir Arieli
When Michele Wiles retired from American Ballet Theatre last spring, it was a shocker: Why would this 31-year-old leave her post as principal dancer in the prime of her career? The answer will be apparent on Nov 21, when Ballet Next is officially born. The new company, directed by Wiles and Charles Askegard—who recently retired from New York City Ballet himself—will light up the Joyce Theater for one night only with a program of classical and contemporary works. The high-caliber cast includes Jennie Somogyi, Joaquin De Luz, Misty Copeland and Drew Jacoby, as well as Wiles and Askegard dancing—hurrah—together. It's about time.
Why did you decide to start this company and leave ABT?
I'd been thinking about this for a couple of years. I've been talking to my husband, James, about it.
And James is...
He's the CEO of Exosome Diagnostics. It's a biotech company he created two and a half years ago—they are creating a test to test for cancer through urine. They're concentrating on the prostate; everyone is very focused on his company at the moment because they think they can do this. The Milken Institute is really interested in helping them. Where do I go from there? It's just so much. It's like a whirlwind.
What was unsatisfying about your career at that point?
I'm actually really grateful for everything I got at ABT. I realized that it was time to start a new chapter in my life. It was time to be brave. [Laughs] To have courage. Going in this direction felt really true to myself. I have ideas and things to say, and I feel like Charles and I can put this together in a very special way to express that. I'm not saying that I'm going to change the ballet world, but it feels right. [ABT] was a really important chapter in my life, and this is a new one that I need to go down. I need to explore this.
How did you meet Askegard?
Oh, my gosh. We've been like two ships passing in the night. I came into ABT as he was just leaving to go to New York City Ballet. This past year he put on a show in Mobile, Alabama, and I think that one of the dancers he was going to use might have gotten injured. It was a suggestion that I go and dance with him. So we started dancing together. Then he started taking David Howard's ballet class, which I take. We just started dancing together a year ago.
I know! It's odd: He's like the perfect partner for me. The height, the look...
I always felt that you belonged at New York City Ballet. Did you ever think about going there?
It was a thought. I've always admired Balanchine's choreography. I've been to see City Ballet recently, and I think the dancers look fantastic. Some of them are dancing so well; it has that American spirit. Actually, Jennie Somogyi is going to be dancing with us. I think she's glorious. The power in her physicality is just extraordinary. [Shrugs] I don't know. I had my mind set on dancing the classics. Even though I'm not closing the door on possibly dancing with City Ballet one day—or any other company, for that matter. At the moment, I'm just going this way. This has been extremely interesting and expanding. Being involved in all of the process on the business end, too. The challenge of building something from nothing is just so appealing to me at the moment.
When did you and Askegard come up with this idea?
It was a conversation that turned into a larger conversation about something larger than just dancing. Something bigger than ourselves. But it started when we started dancing together. We knew that we would be more than just dance partners. We just had similar views and thoughts on dance. We work really well together, and we both have networks of friends and dancers and people that want to help us in this cause. We really think that we can put this together in a unique, high level. And we want to stick to our classical fundamental roots. But then we also want to show that there's another side with new works and choreography.
Your dancers are impressive in this first show, but you'll have to work with whomever's available in the future, right?
Eventually, we want to have a core group of dancers. We want to plan a six-city tour. It's nothing solid, but that's what we're working on. Now, we're pulling from the companies. I think what's interesting with this is the atmosphere: We've been having Ballet Next company class on Saturdays, and this atmosphere is just positive and people feel safe to take risks. In our performance, we're going to have musicians, and we have to have interaction with them. There isn't going to be a conductor. I feel like that's different—not that we're trying to be different, but it's more of an intimate atmosphere.
The program is just one night. How did that happen?
This is a story: Everything happened when I was in Europe. After I left ABT, I went to Europe. And we had been talking about this: When are we going to come out? Should we do this in the studio? I was reading the Jacques d'Amboise book [the memoir I Was a Dancer], and I was in my hotel room. I read the story about how City Ballet was formed—how it had different names, and it failed a couple of times, and it was an entrepreneurial story starting from scratch. You just do it. They said sometimes there would be fewer people in the audience than onstage. It's like, don't be afraid. So I called the Joyce. [Laughs]
From Europe. I asked if they had an evening. They asked what the name of the company was, and I didn't have a name. But I felt that if we could show on the stage what we were about, it would stay alive.
You booked a show without a name and without even knowing what you would perform?
[Shakes head] Are my cheeks getting really red right now? Oh, my God. I was inspired by that book! We were in meetings talking about when we should do this, and at some point you have to stop talking and do it.
How many dancers do you want in the company?
Six to eight.
And what kind of choreography are you drawn to?
Obviously Petipa. Balanchine. I'm open to letting this other side evolve and to educate myself about choreography that I might like to experience. I loved working with Mauro Bigonzetti, for instance, because it was so visceral, and there wasn't anything added to it. It is what it is, and I really enjoyed that process. He allowed us to be free in how we did the movements, which I find really interesting.
He choreographed a new ballet for you and Drew Jacoby. What did that entail?
I love what he did with us. We're two different dancers, and he showcased that. We worked with him for two and a half weeks here in New York, but I met with him when I was in Italy to talk about the project. I guess I have to go back to the beginning, when Charles and I were performing in one of the YAGP [Youth America Grand Prix] performances; we saw Drew dance with Rubi [Pronk], as we were just like, "Wow, she's such a mover. She can move." And we saw one of Mauro Bigonzetti's ballets, and we just thought it was stunning. It was a pas de deux from one of his full-length ballets, and Charles and I were having this conversation about starting a company. We were talking casually one night and he's like, "Michele, you and Drew should do a dance together." I was like, "Yeah, and Mauro should do the choreography!" So I got Mauro's information and sent him a cold e-mail. He sent us a duet that he had already choreographed, and it was beautiful, but I was just like, "Well, I really want something new. I just think that would be really special." I didn't hear from him for a while. And then I said, "I'm coming to Europe in July. Can I come and meet you and talk about this?" I met with him and he said, "I'm going to be in New York in September. I can give you something really beautiful and I could put it together in two weeks. I want to use Vivaldi's La Follia." It was like, okay!
Are you on pointe in the Bigonzetti?
Yes. That was a thing that Charles and I decided—we want it to be on pointe. So far.
You're committed to classical ballet?
Yeah. And then taking it to the edge in contemporary pointe. I think what I'm trying to say is that it still needs to have the technique as a base, but then it can go into the freedom of exploring the upper body in a different way, different combinations of dancers together. I've even thought of doing more of an edgy Rose Adagio with four guys and a girl, but in a more contemporary style. We're looking for someone to do a group piece for us.
What do you have planned after this?
We're planning a multicity tour, but nothing's set in stone. We want to be New York based. Charles and I were talking about this yesterday: It's where we're from! We've had most of our careers here, and New York City is a part of the both of us. And I'm experiencing New York in a completely different way now because of the new venture and being introduced to so many new people.
What was it like before?
Ah! The comparison. Every day is a new day, and I wake up with the responsibility of what do we have to do? It's a wonderful thing at a company: You show up and they tell you what to do, which is comforting. You have somewhere to go and [the rehearsal schedule] says, "1--2, 3--4," blah, blah, blah, and that's your day. With this, you're in charge of what you do and making the schedule and talking to people and getting people together and making sure things work out. It's really energizing for me to do that. It's a gift. I feel really lucky that I have this opportunity. It's developing another side of myself: an independent side. Making decisions. It's really good for your confidence. But now that I'm out [of a company], I'm like, Wow—I can see how it can be really comforting to have somewhere to go. Especially in economic times like this.
How are you financing Ballet Next? It's a difficult time to start a dance company.
I think it's a great time because it forces you to be more creative and innovative and to find creative ways to do things if you don't have money. And I find that we are collaborating with more different people. We do have lots of friends and special people who are interested in our company.
Yes. We have a board, and the board is taking care of this. We have eight people, and I think two more are joining today. And maybe one more.
So maybe 11 by the time of your first show?
Yeah. We really want to build the business as well, and to get the executive plan together, and to do this in the right way. Build it incrementally, and I think we have some really smart people collaborating on this—on the board. And Charles. He's so smart and he has a network. And there's my husband and his network. We've also done a lot of work with YMCA. At the Arts and Letters reception this year, they auctioned off 10 seats and a ballet class with me. So they're coming to the show, and a lot of the YMCA kids are going to be there as well. They came to my last Swan Lake. They bought 50 tickets, and the kids had never been to the Met, never seen Swan Lake. They were thrilled.
How did you become involved with the YMCA?
They wanted to use me as a recipient of the Arts and Letters award, and I wanted to investigate more what this was all about. So I said, "What can I do?" I went to Bedford-Stuyvesant and taught a ballet class to their Tiny Toes dancers. It was actually a really fulfilling experience for me. I walked in not knowing what to do. I felt like I couldn't go in there and say, "Okay, go to the barre. One, two, three, four...." You have to inspire them. So I decided to sit everyone down in a circle and ask them their names and I talked to them and said, "What do you think ballerinas do? What do you want to know?" One of them raised their hand and said, "They stretch!" and I said, "Okay, let's stretch." And they loved it. We want to be involved in that way as well.
This may seem like an obvious question, but it's not true of every creative venture, especially in the dance world. Why is the business side just as important as the artistic side to you?
It's our base and where we can work from and create these beautiful ballets. I think one can't exist without the other. Some of my ideas were to collaborate with the charities and to do the multicity tour, and this is what's coming out so far, and I think more will evolve as the company grows.
What is on the program?
We're going to start with a White Swan Suite for Charles me. It's the entrance from the second act, when we first meet, and then the pas de deux. It's going to be set to live music. Elad Kabilio is our music director. There's going to be a pianist, two violins, a cello, a bass and a viola. They're going to play the overture because we felt it would make it more of a ballet to have overtures to each pas de deux.
I love that idea.
Thanks. Charles said we should play the overtures so it's more of a ballet rather than pas de deux, stop, pas de deux, stop. The second piece [The Sleeping Beauty pas de deux] is going to be performed by Maria Kochetkova and Joaquin De Luz, who have never danced together before, which amazes me. I think they'd be perfect because of their heights and personalities. We'll play the overture to the third act Sleeping Beauty pas de deux. And then we're going to close with Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux with Misty Copeland and Jared Matthews. And the idea there, since the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux is set to a lost piece of music from Swan Lake, was that we would try and find something else that was lost to play before. I don't know what's going on with that. We might use some fourth-act music instead, but that's to be determined. We had a million ideas for the first act.
The second act is all new work?
Yes, that's been created this year. The first solo is Maria Kochetkova dancing Jorma Elo's One Overture. Then the second piece is a Margo Sappington, set to music by Satie and called Entwined. Jennie Somogyi and Charles will perform it. It's gorgeous. Very mysterious, and Charles's partnering is just exquisite.
Do you want to keep Somogyi after this initial performance? Is that a goal?
Jennie is a really good dancer. Wow. We want her. Absolutely. She's going to do more. And Misty Copeland is going to do a solo [One] by Robert Sher-Machherndl. He created this solo for me this summer; the music is Max Richter. They were honoring David Howard in Indianapolis, and I premiered this solo there. I really like his choreography. It's very intellectual.
How do you mean?
I don't know. [Laughs] Everything is kind of off. It's intellectual and emotional. There's movement that I do that is a really deep pli, and I use my upper body. He said, "Tell me your whole life in this pli." There are images that he creates, and you stay there and it's like you have to fill the space with your presence. There's one part that is like wiping off my makeup after a performance, and he said, "Think of it as the most important part of the ballet. This is your 32 fouetts." It's very touching. And I wanted to do the piece, but I felt like I didn't want it to be the Michele Wiles show and that Misty Copeland would be beautiful dancing this. Robert's going to work with her on it. It's something that challenges you in a different way.
What was your final ABT performance in Swan Lake like for you?
It was the first time I realized how special what we do is. It was like, Oh, my God, this is the most amazing thing, and I feel so appreciative that I am able to stand on a pointe shoe and touch the universe. To really have that awakening or that realization was just unbelievable.
Did it fill you with a kind of regret?
No. To dance at that level and just the freedom I experienced—I enjoyed every second of it. The awareness I experienced was mind-blowing.
Did your dance partner, Cory Stearns, know what was going on?
No. It was a personal time, and I wanted it to be about Swan Lake. I wanted it to be about Cory and me dancing together, not, Oh, my God, Michele is leaving ABT. And I mean, he had enough on his plate already. Seriously! It was something that I needed to do in that way. And I wasn't retiring. I'm still going to be performing.
What did it feel like after the performance?
I felt really full. [Laughs] Full and fulfilled and happy that I was going on to the next phase. And I went out in the way that I needed to go out. At this high level. I felt so positive.
Would you guest with ABT?
There are so many guest artists at ABT. Was that a reason to get out and do something new?
Actually, I think a lot of the guest artists are gorgeous, stunning dancers. No. It was what I was going through personally. There have been a lot of shifts in my life: I've gotten married, and that opens up a whole new door as well. And to someone outside of the ballet. It's a different world, and there's a time and a place for everything.
What other shifts are you referring to?
Just within myself emotionally. Maturing. Growing up and becoming a woman and making my own decisions. There's something really empowering about that—no matter how difficult it can be, it's good. It's all growing. There's so much more depth. So much more.
How did you meet James?
I actually met James through Irene Shen. She's on the board of YAGP, and she wanted us to get together. For two years, she kept trying. She told me, "Tell me when you're ready," and she told James, "Don't get married." She was persistent! I had gotten out of a relationship and I called her and said, "I'm ready." It took James three weeks to call me after Irene gave him the number. He was just deciding, do I want to be involved in the ballet? It's a commitment. It's an interesting thing for a spouse, because they have to love it.
He was thinking about that before he met you?
That's what he said! He's honest. So he called me three weeks later, and we were at City Center. I was like, I knew he was going to call me now. I'm busy, I don't want to go out. So I didn't call him back for three weeks. We finally set up this date and both of us were thinking, We're just doing this for Irene. Not thinking anything was going to happen, totally no expectation. Just showing up for Irene.
It's an appointment.
Right! Of course, the time was messed up. He thought I said 6:30pm, but I said 7:30pm, so he was there for an hour. But he waited! It was the most natural meeting ever. He gave me a hug after all of our "we're not going to call until after three weeks," "I don't know if I want to get back into the ballet," "I don't know if I want to be with a boring businessperson"—so we met, and it was fantastic. It was natural. And I think it was good timing for the both of us. I think we both knew that we wanted something more, that we wanted a base and that we wanted to build something.
Was he involved in ballet somehow?
He had dated a few dancers. So he knew already.
Ah! The dance world is not easy.
It's not! It's a crazy little world. He was phenomenal through it—supporting me—and he was part of me finding my courage and strength. So that was a big shift. He proposed to me after six months.
Did you want to get married at that point?
I don't know. [Laughs] My whole life has been about pointe shoes and tutus! Then all of a sudden, here comes this man.
But you weren't such a bunhead, were you?
No. But I was extremely dedicated to what I did.
Did you feel underappreciated at ABT?
No. I think ABT is a special place and a special time that people go through. And I feel like it's one of those places where you're on your own to make it work, and that's just the way it is. I know it sounds harsh. I think I did pretty well in my time there. I did Swan Lake and Corsaire and lots of contemporary works, and I learned a lot. It set me up beautifully for what I'm about to do now.
The discipline, first of all. The knowing that I need to have a structure to keep myself going in the dance world, to make ballets happen and to do the classics still and then the belief in myself that I kept going no matter what. And now that I'm out here, I know I can do it on my own.