Michelle Fleet talks about dancing for Paul Taylor

Michelle Fleet talks about her career with the Paul Taylor Dance Company

Michelle Fleet of the Paul Taylor Dance Company

Michelle Fleet of the Paul Taylor Dance Company Photograph: Tom Caravaglia

Michelle Fleet talks about her career with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which returns to the David H. Koch Theater in March. The only African-American dancer with the troupe, Michelle Fleet, a Bronx native and member of the Taylor company, discusses her time at Purchase College, dancing Taylor works like Esplanade and Last Look and her secret love: knitting.

Michelle Fleet, a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, moves as if she’s breathing steps. Always a compelling sight, this Bronx native is blossoming into one of Taylor’s most honest interpreters in works like Piazzolla Caldera, where she and Michael Trusnovec simmer in a tightly knit duet, and the enchanting classic Esplanade. A dancer both daring and able to make the trickiest of steps live within the music, she’s featured this season, which runs through March 24 at the David H. Koch Theater, in the new Perpetual Dawn, Speaking in Tongues, Cascade, Offenbach Overtures, Last Look—one of her favorites—and, of course, Esplanade. The only African-American dancer in the current company, Fleet loves the diversity found in Taylor’s work; it doesn’t leave room for typecasting. She spoke about her career at the company’s Lower East Side studios.

Time Out New York: You’re from the Bronx. How did you get into dance?
Michelle Fleet:
My mother put me in dance classes when I was three. I started at a little school called LaRocque Bey in Harlem. I was there for a year and then by the time I was four-and-a-half or five, my mother had remarried. Everyone in the Fleet family was an artist of some sort—singer, dancer, musician. My uncle suggested to my mom to put me in a dance school in the Bronx. I consider myself really starting there. I was at an age when I could remember everything, and I stayed there until I was about 13 or 14.

Time Out New York: What kind of dance was it?
Michelle Fleet:
We did everything: ballet, jazz, tap, African. Then I went to Talent Unlimited High School. It truly felt like a home for the arts for students, and we all worked together. It always reminded me of Fame. You have LaGuardia, which is great, but Talent Unlimited is its own thing. It’s like a family of artists. We didn’t have that name; we had us. Musical theater would work with dancers and the band would learn all the music—everyone was a part of the big production for that year. We did The Wiz, West Side Story. We would go on tour sometimes to do community service. It was great. In addition to that, I went to Ballet Hispanico after school every day.

Time Out New York: What were you most drawn to in terms of dance?
Michelle Fleet:
I was definitely drawn to modern, but I knew that I needed ballet, which is why I went to Ballet Hispanico. They had a program that worked with Talent Unlimited where if you auditioned and got a scholarship, you could go there. There was another program with the Martha Graham school. I got a scholarship from both, and I chose Ballet Hispanico because I wanted more ballet. I graduated from high school in 1995.

Time Out New York: Where did you go from there?
Michelle Fleet:
I went to Purchase. I knew that I wanted to get out of the city. [Teachers] were like, “Why don’t you audition for Juilliard?” I was like, “I know it’s a great school, but I grew up in this city. I know this city. I need to leave this city.” Where could I get a great dance program outside of the city, but be close enough that if I needed to get there I could? That was Purchase. It happened to be the first school I auditioned for and I happened to find out immediately that I was accepted. [Laughs] I was calling about financial aid, and they said, “Didn’t you get the letters? We sent them to you already.” I was like, “Why? I haven’t received an acceptance letter yet,” and they were like, “Oh, you were accepted. Are you sure you didn’t get that letter?” We were in school that day and I was screaming, running down the halls excited. I didn’t audition anywhere else. One, two, three—done. Everything just fell into place.

Time Out New York: What did you discover about yourself as a dancer or as a person at Purchase?
Michelle Fleet:
[Laughs] Oh gosh. It’s an interesting place. That campus? You’re going to make it or you’re going to leave. It’s one or the other. It’s a pretty campus in the summertime. Once that winter hits and the rain?

Time Out New York: It reminds me of the Soviet Union.
Michelle Fleet.
Yeah. I think the original design was for a prison. All my friends I met there, I’m still in contact with; the teachers I had were amazing. They pushed me in the right direction. You’re still discovering yourself and what you can do and what you need to improve on and there were things that I wasn’t aware just yet that I could do.

Time Out New York: Like what?
Michelle Fleet:
Like I’m a good jumper. I loved doing it, but I never thought of it in that sense: Oh, you’re a good jumper, and you need to capitalize on that. People have certain skills that they just gravitate toward, and it wasn’t something I thought about, I just did it. You have to jump, right? I was in ballet one day, and we were doing petit allegro and my ballet teacher Gayle Young said, “Michelle, come up here and demonstrate it.” I was like, Why is he doing this to me? Thinking I was going to get a correction—why is he going to embarrass me? And I did it and he was like, “Okay, good. Can everybody please do that?” I was like, Okay. I was still embarrassed because I didn’t know how to take that. In dance, you’re constantly being criticized and you’re constantly trying to make yourself better. I also realized I would be cast in certain pieces—one was Merce Cunningham’s Duets. I didn’t audition for it, but the teacher asked, “Why didn’t you audition?”

Time Out New York: Why didn’t you?
Michelle Fleet:
I just didn’t want to. I wasn’t interested in doing it at the time. She called me into her office and said, “You’re going to do the piece. We’re having two casts, and I want you to be in the dance.” It happened to be the big, jumpy duet. It’s ridiculous. That was a hard dance, but a great one. Jump in second, one leg twist down the floor. Oh my God.

Time Out New York: For your senior project, you have to choose a solo. What did you choose?
Michelle Fleet:
I did an excerpt from Bill T. Jones’s Some Songs: “Ne me quitte pas.” At the time, I was really interested in his work, and I happened to do a workshop with the company at Skidmore before my senior year. I asked him if I could do a solo from one of his pieces. He suggested the solo. In the dance, it’s done to the Jacques Brel “Ne me quitte pas.” He suggested that I do the solo in complete silence and then repeat it with the music. That was an amazing experience. Maya Saffrin, who was in the company at the time, staged it on me and I learned so much from that experience alone, as well as being at Skidmore and working with the company. Bill just digs into your being. I think I had many a night when I was crying. You speak through your movement, but then when you’re asked to discuss your thoughts behind your movement? We had a lot of improv sessions and a lot of comp classes where he would critique our work, too. He wanted to know where things came from, why we made certain decisions, what the emotional force was behind it.

Time Out New York: Did you feel comfortable telling him the truth?
Michelle Fleet:
Not all the time. Sometimes it was fine. But it was three weeks of that—that’s intense. I’m like, It takes a long time for me to build a relationship with people. But it was good and healthy.

Time Out New York: How did you discover Paul Taylor?
Michelle Fleet:
Hernando [Cortez] came to Purchase to stage Company B for the spring concert. I did not audition. [Laughs] I had taken Hernando’s class; again, it was double cast and they were like, “Why didn’t you audition?” I was like, “I’m sorry! I just didn’t think it was going to be for me. It’s Company B.” I had studied Paul’s work and I knew the dances.

Time Out New York: Did it seem to be too much about white America?
Michelle Fleet:
Maybe. At the time, I was like, I don’t know if I’m appropriate for any of those roles. And then Hernando was like, “Yeah you are.” Right after that Hernando comes to me and says, “There’s a private audition. Do you want to go?” I had graduated and gotten a job at [Dallas] BBQ on 72nd—don’t ever eat there—and I was told the audition was on Friday. Hernando says to me, “Go to the studio, take class every day, and you’ll be fine.” I made it to class twice that week; it was in the old studio and every time I went to take class, it was packed. Fifty people in that studio—it was insanity. They knew there was an audition going on.

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