Michelle Fleet talks about dancing for Paul Taylor

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

Time Out New York: I love that dance.
Michelle Fleet:
That’s another where you just rip yourself apart—take all of me. It’s complete darkness and all you see is yourself and everyone else [in] double because of the mirrors onstage. I’m the first one to pull away from the pile, and there’s a nasty heaviness that’s on you once you get started. Just to be able to stay loose—if you can’t stay loose, you can’t do it, because it’s so tense and it’s built-in. You have to allow it to happen. You’re beating yourself and thrashing all over the floor. It’s insanity really. I never thought I would throw myself in the air and land on the floor. You don’t learn how to do that. You just do it. Before I was ever in the dance, I would watch Lisa do it. How does she do it? The woman would never mark. Maybe one time. She was moved into another role and she said, “I’ve got some kneepads and some elbow pads for you.” She passed them onto me. I was like, Oh, I see why she used these from time to time. It’s intense. You definitely get bruises. You are sore after that one. But it’s so good. It feels great. It’s just that, as Bettie would say, “Deliciousness.” And then you’re done and there’s sweat and hair stuck to your face. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: How do you feel about being the only African-American dancer in the company? 
Michelle Fleet:
People know who I am, and it’s nice. I always hope that there are more African-American males and females that would be attracted to this company because it’s an awesome company.

Time Out New York: Are there not?
Michelle Fleet:
I think there are. I just think people gravitate toward Ailey or Philadanco. I understand that, but there’s a ton more to experience. For me, it wasn’t even about black, white, whatever. This company made sense to me. The athleticism. You can be ugly; you can be pretty. You get to live in these roles, and it’s not like you only get to dance one dance. You are in everything. There are only 16 dancers. You’re dancing. And you get to be somebody else all the time. Everyone is a star in this company. When we say there are no principals—yeah, there are, but there aren’t. Everyone has a special place here. I’m not going to do what Jamie Rae does, and Jamie Rae is not going to do what I do. Everyone has that special thing about them. You can’t take that away from anyone here. You’re not just part of the corps. And you’re also part of this elite family, practically. With each generation, you meet everybody! It really is a family, and once you’re in, you’re in. It’s not like a company of 30-something dancers and you’re like, “Who was that?” No. You know everyone.

Time Out New York: What is Paul after for the women in the company? Obviously, he likes strength.
Michelle Fleet:
Weakness is not an option. You need to be humble in a way that you allow yourself to be vulnerable. You have to be strong, physically and mentally, because there’s just so much about understanding what he wants, understanding your place in the company, understanding each of the pieces—being able to switch gears all the time. You need to be well-rounded to be able to survive and have an opinion. I think he likes when he can see that you know who you are. Then he can take you and use you. Sprinkle you here and there; if you’re just a blank piece of paper he’s not going to know what to do. You disappear. No one wants that.

Time Out New York: Were you instant friends with Laura?
Michelle Fleet:
We met in the main company. She came to the company and I’d been here three or four years already; she wasn’t struggling with anything, but I knew she was trying to figure things out. I pulled her to the side and said, “Okay, so this is what you’re going to do…” I guess it happened again with someone else. They were all like, “Hey, hey, this is what you’re going to do. Let’s go to ‘Mama-chelle.’” I don’t want anyone to struggle. I’m just trying to help people. It’s little things like that. And being able to talk to each other and respect each other and hang out, because we’re with each other 24/7! I’m not saying you have to be tied at the hip, but it’s nice to find a friend—somebody you can talk to and be completely honest with. For a long time it was Lisa [Viola], Laura and me. We’re still tight. There’s just a bond you create. It’s special. It’s awesome. I’m like that with Michael [Trusnovec]. These are lifelong friends for sure. We are definitely going to grow old together. I think that’s also part of the lore of this company. Once you’re in, it’s hard to leave because it’s a family. It’s like a fraternity. A secret society. And when you get out into the real world, no one understands what it’s like.

Time Out New York: And it’s increasingly rare because there aren’t these single-choreographer companies anymore.
Michelle Fleet:
Exactly. Now it’s pickup companies all the time. You’re constantly meeting new people; you don’t develop relationships that last through time like this. You have to build that trust in that relationship—with the dancers, with the choreographer. And to be able to reveal yourself to the choreographer and not just walk in—the same with the choreographer. To be able to trust the dances is special.

Time Out New York: So what are you thinking about in the future?
Michelle Fleet:
I got my master’s early on in business. I love designing knitwear. I love knitting. I love fiber in general. My mother—bless her soul—ended up remarrying and moving to Washington State and now we own 14 to 17 alpacas. She’s like, “You know, this is yours later in life.” Who knows? Ideally, I would love to have my own line of yarn, my own store/café. I love to sit, knit, meet people. It’s not just knitting. I also love fitness. My fiancé is a personal trainer and an actor. I have a list. I’m prepared. I love making accessories. I have shawls and hats and bandannas; I’ve made skirts. I do a lot of felting. Designing head accessories. Working with leather and silk. I went to FIT for their continuing-education courses. I’m actually about to start a master’s knitting program with the Knitting Guild [Association]. It’s all through correspondence, so that will work. I have a knitting machine at home. And the alpacas. I just love my mother for doing that.

Time Out New York: How much longer do you think you’ll dance?
Michelle Fleet:
I’m not thinking about leaving. [She turns away.] I’m not! I’m not! [Laughs]

Time Out New York: Where’s Laura Halzack right now?
Michelle Fleet:
[Laughs] Laura would kill me. She’s like, “You know you can’t leave.”

Time Out New York: But you shouldn’t. You’re getting great roles. I don’t know how your body feels…
Michelle Fleet:
My body feels great. We go through injuries, but I feel great. I’m not ready to leave. I still love it too much. I’m not ready to leave, but I know there’s more to life too. At some point, you have to just choose and I’m still selfish right now. But not in a bad way. I’m still selfish in the sense that I love it and I still want to do it and be a part of this and still give onstage. I want to still give myself on stage.
Paul Taylor Dance Company is at the David H. Koch Theater through Mar 24.

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