Former principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater, and now Founder, artistic director, and dancer at BalletNext, Michele Wiles has an impressive resume to say the least. Before that, she trained and lived at the Kirov Academy in D.C. from the age of ten, and competed in numerous ballet competitions in places like Bulgaria, Japan, and France. See my interview with the lovely and ambitious Wiles below.
By Mable Yiu
I remember seeing you perform with American Ballet Theater years ago in Orange County, but I never knew about your training. What was it like moving to D.C. to train at the Kirov Academy when you were only ten?
This was a life changing event and a big decision for a family to make. Originally, I received a full scholarship from the Royal Ballet in London. My parents would have had to sign legal guardianship over to them- a bit extreme! Luckily, the Kirov Academy opened in 1990 and that was a car ride away. We made the huge decision that I would board at the school full time. I was there for six years training in classical Vaganova technique, character dance, and historical court dance. There were academics in the morning, and at night, I had to maintain other kinds of dance for local dance competitions I would compete in... there was no time for anything else. I lived for dance!
Did you take academic classes at Kirov as well, or did you have to go to a different school in addition to the ballet academy?
I skipped 5th grade to go there. The first two years we went to a public school in the area. It was a crazy adjustment. The kids were older… it was overwhelming at first. I wasn’t living at home during the week, it was my first time living at a boarding school, and I was eleven. I had home on my mind a lot. It was a different social scene... It was a public school and it was hard to fit to find people to fit in with. But by eighth grade, I made a really good friend, Lisa, and we still keep in touch. By the third year I was there, they started to have in-house schooling, so I could do my schooling within the Kirov Academy.
Since you started training at such a young age, was ballet always a career you were aiming for, or did you ever think about going to college or doing something else?
I started young in tap and jazz and [participated in] a local dance competition then. At that point, the goal was to be a Rockette. To improve my jazz technique, they suggested that I take ballet. I started watching videos and became completely hooked and knew that was what I wanted to do. So I set out with this one goal in mind.
You moved pretty quickly through the ranks at American Ballet Theater (ABT); it took you two years to become a soloist, and then five years to become a principal. Can you share more about your experience at ABT?
This was like going to college. There was a whole new set of people and challenges to experience. Like the big leagues. The Kirov was a place to concentrate on creating my technical foundation. ABT was about carving out a space in the world of dance as a great dancer. I went through several phases, which ultimately led me to BalletNext.
Phase 1 was the Kirov training for 6 years, and winning the gold medal in Varna, Bulgaria.
Phase 2 was company life. I was dancing through the ranks: studio company, Apprentice, Soloist, and Principal. My Kirov training carried me through becoming soloist, the Princess Grace Award in 2000, the Eric Bruhn prize in 2002, and my first principal roles in Le Corsaire, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. In 2005, I sustained a back injury which sidelined me for 7 months. Ironically, I was just promoted to principal when this happened.
Phase 3: emotional life begins. I met David Howard [one of the most sought-after ballet coaches], and worked on rethinking how I approached my work. The first thing he said was "Let go!" I had spent so many years examining myself in the mirror; it was time to go inside and figure out what was going on. A whole new emotional side was added to my work. I learned a new way of working with ballet mistress Georgina Parkinson. She would always ask, "What do you want to do today"?
Phase 4: emotional life continues to build. I had a lot of success with more dramatic roles, which require an emotional understanding of the character. Ultimately, I came to the decision to leave American Ballet Theatre to expand and experience a new way of creating art. BalletNext was born out of a desire and need to have a more process/experimental type environment. Then I started choreographing myself and collaborating with unlikely artists such as Jay Donn and Tom Harrell.
So did you start BalletNext while you were still at ABT, or was it something that came about afterwards?
I started thinking about BalletNext the last year I was there. It was just a conversation and I was just wrapping my head around the idea of creating a new company. It was definitely a risk, but a risk worth taking. You know, you come from a ballet company and a ballet school, and your main job is to dance. I had to break those walls and learn about it.
I love how BalletNext works to, in your words, "pair classically trained dancers and live musicians in a collaborative setting that encourages risk taking and a focus on process." What was your inspiration for founding BalletNext and what do you hope to achieve with it?
My inspiration is finding new energies to pair with the strong foundation of classical technique and to bring the style into the future. This is also helping me find out how I really want to dance. I hope to achieve a bi-coastal presence and show other ballerinas who leave a company that there is another way and to bring up the next generation.
How have you selected your company members, choreographers, composers, and musicians? Did they have to audition, or did you reach out to them?
It's been a little bit of both. I have auditions in the summer- mostly for the dancers. [For] choreographers, musicians, etc., I reach out to them.
You mentioned that your husband, James, is a chairman on the board. Is he a dancer as well?
No, he is on the business side of cancer research. He develops companies - young and entrepreneurial biotech companies.
How did you guys meet?
It’s a funny story. I call it the “Chinese-Arranged Marriage.” It was all Irene Shen, who’s on the board for YAGP [Youth America Grand Prix competition] and ABT. James was on the board for YAGP. She kept telling James that she had the perfect woman for him and to not get married, and wouldn’t tell him who it was. I was dating someone at the time, but Irene took me to dinner and told me, “I have this very tall man for you. When you are done [dating], let me know.” This went on for two years. One spring I told Irene that I was ready, and she tells James. Then three weeks later, he calls me, but I’m busy and didn’t call him back for another three weeks. But Irene was persistent and said I have to call him back. Finally, I do, to satisfy her, and we met up and had a blast. It's sort of history from there.
You've also taken on choreography, and recently debuted Ushuaia, with music by Heinrich Biber, last February. How has that process been? Do you tend to choreograph works on specific dancers or simply to the music?
I tend to choreograph to the situation. Ushuaia began with a male dancer and three females. Then there were four female dancers and I adapted the piece to that. It was like three different ballets all in one. By the end, everyone was like “I like it better with four girls now.” I liked the process and I don’t necessarily want to make the dancers to do the same choreography. Choreography is alive, too, and it always has to be changing, especially if you are doing the same work with the same music. It's never done, but you have to move on.
I saw that you regularly work with YMCA to teach some of their young members ballet. What has been some of the most meaningful charity work you've done?
YMCA has been my heart for the past 5 years. I fell in love with the dancers from PS 54 and with the Tiny Toes [program], it doesn't get any better. I've recently taught at 51st Academy for the COMPASS after school program. One of the boys said, "I thought dance was only for girls, but l was wrong," which melted my heart! You realize in those moments that you are changing lives.
How did your partnership with the YMCA come about?
In 2010, I was given an Arts and Letter award at the YMCA Gala at the Time Warner building. They were honoring me for my work, and it was amazing. Then I was introduced to the program, Tiny Toes, and I taught the class out there and we decided in 2011 to do a joint collaborative performance with the Y and Ballet Next. There were high school kids that they invited to watch the performance, and I danced the White Swan pas de deux, where the guy comes out in white tights. They were all laughing! But the moment he lifted me over his head, they were like “Wow, this is amazing.” So I’ve been teaching there and doing the gala in Brooklyn. This will be the fifth year.