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FEATURES

Filtering by Category: Music

Michele Wiles, BalletNext

Mable Yiu

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

Wiles' visit to the YMCA in Bed-Stuy, December 2015. Photo courtesy of the YMCA of Greater New York.

Wiles' visit to the YMCA in Bed-Stuy, December 2015. Photo courtesy of the YMCA of Greater New York.

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.

Dancers at BalletNext, in costume for Wiles'  Ushuaia . Photo by  Albert Ayzenberg

Dancers at BalletNext, in costume for Wiles' Ushuaia. Photo by Albert Ayzenberg

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.

Wiles' visit to the YMCA in Bed-Stuy, December 2015. Photo courtesy of the YMCA of Greater New York.

Wiles' visit to the YMCA in Bed-Stuy, December 2015. Photo courtesy of the YMCA of Greater New York.

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.

Plums

Mable Yiu

Photo courtesy of Plums

Photo courtesy of Plums

by Mira Dayal

We don't often hear music described with terms like "spectral beauty." When we do, it's because Plums has launched a new album and its silvery dream-pop guitar riffs have captivated fans and critics alike. 

But the best introduction to our new favorite band, Plums, is below: a full stream of their debut EP, Jen.

 
 

You've recently been working on your first album release as Plums. How have you drawn on your previous experiences with music to create this album?

A few of us have made music together in the past, and each of those projects have been great learning experiences. With each new project we discover new production techniques and we find more sources of inspiration. When you make a new album, all you can really hope to do is to build upon these insights and make something that improves upon your previous work. 

How would you describe your music in terms of colors (hues, saturation, tone) or images? How do you think listeners would describe your music?

The saddest brown of all time..... 

What is your process of collaboration like while writing and producing your music? How do your diverse experiences as musicians enrich or complicate production?

Typically one of us will come to the band with an idea for a song, and then we'll work together to complete the arrangement, write new sections, and finish the piece. Working as a group helps in that it gives us more perspectives and possible directions to take the music. Music production can sometimes be a bit of a puzzle – you can tell pieces are missing, but you're not sure exactly what they are. Having multiple people involved in the writing process makes it much easier to fill in those spaces. 

Some of you are also jazz musicians. Does the structure or composition of jazz play a role in your process of creation?

Jazz really is an interactive and improvisational form. While we don't typically write music from a primarily jazz perspective, certain jazz processes influence our music in various ways. This includes compositional jam sessions, dissonant harmony, and dialogic patterns between instruments. 

What have you learned about production through this album, and which tracks were the most interesting or creative on your end?

During the production of this album we became very interested in analog recording technology, such as tape machines and cassette recorders. The drums were recorded onto cassette before being transferred to digital recording software, and many of the guitars were put through tape machines. We love the depth and distortions created by the tape – qualities that you hear in older music (pre-1980s) but get lost with modern all-digital production.

In an increasingly digital and connected world, how do you see music being shared, performed, or distributed in the future?

With digital recording software and the internet, it's easier than ever to create and disseminate your own music. Of course, we also have illegal downloading and the rise of music streaming services, and so revenue from record sales is declining and will likely continue to do so. This is bad for record labels but might not be quite as bad for musicians. Traditionally, musicians have made very little off of record sales (the standard royalty rate is about 15% for the artist), while their primary source of revenue comes from concert ticket sales and licensing. Because of social media, it is easier to connect with others in the industry (we found our record label through surfing the internet and sending them an email) and to build a following that will hopefully attend your shows. That said, it's a very complicated picture and it can be difficult to locate the exact effects of these big changes in the music world. 

Which artists do you find most innovative and interesting today? Are there any artists you tend to return to or feel most influenced by?

As we work on our full-length album we've been listening to a lot of 70s greats - Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, Elton John, Jackson 5 - and we're hoping to place a greater emphasis on rhythmic elements. 

The World on a String

fairweather enterprises

Cellist NATHAN CHAN recently graduated from Columbia College, but has already immersed himself in the musical life of New York City. Here, Fairweather’s Mable Yiu chats with the music prodigy about the role music plays in his considerably well-rounded life.

When did you discover your love of music?

I started my musical journey at the age of three when I began conducting. I am lucky enough to have grown up in a musical family. My mother Rena Ling is a piano teacher and my father Samuel Chan is a cardiologist but also plays the violin in his free time. My sister is a violist who is studying at Barnard College this year. Growing up, conductors were my heroes. I would often watch and emulate conductors on LaserDisc and was hugely compelled by their command of sound and emotion. I guess I had an intuitive connection to the music that still astounds me to this day. Physicality was an important part of how I connected and grew to love music and I feel physicality is still a large component of how I play the cello today.

When did you start playing the cello, and when did it become a primary part of your life?

I started playing the cello when I was five years old! I think I first truly understood my passion in music when I realized how profound and positive an impact it could have on the people around me. I think there was one defining moment in my life that really solidified my desire to make this “my thing.” When I was 11, I was fortunate enough to be featured in a documentary on HBO called “The Music In Me” in which I performed and spoke about “The Swan” by Camille Saint-Saens. Much of the segment included me describing the musical feelings and emotions behind the piece and so I described the song itself as being bittersweet; its lyrical passages hide an inner turmoil within a dying swan. The ending result was really meaningful, and I am still amazed by it to this day. This experience showed me the importance in communicating my passion as a way to express deep inner emotions to listeners. This emotional aspect of playing the cello has really come to influence the way I approach the world and is the biggest reason why I love it so much.

What inspired you to study at Columbia?

When I was deciding upon choices on where to study for college, I made a conscious and deliberate choice to pursue both academia and music at an extremely high level. I ultimately decided on attending both Columbia University and The Juilliard School for their dual degree program. So much of music is being able to relate the entire amalgamation of human thought, knowledge and emotion into your playing. I strongly feel that having this vast wealth of knowledge made possible by a liberal arts education has and will continue to be an important part of the way I play the cello.

How would you compare the music scene in New York compared to the one in San Francisco?

I am really loving not only the music opportunities in New York, but the life lessons here too. I feel immensely mobile in this city, which makes me feel so free to absorb the energy and culture here. Playing in both Avery Fisher Hall and Alice Tully Hall (as a soloist with the Little Orchestra Society and with the Juilliard Orchestra) are two great examples of the musical possibilities in New York. I am excited to start my Masters degree at The Juilliard School this year and really can’t wait to immerse myself in its energy. I really love it.

What’s a current project you’re excited about?

I am currently working on a project called “Nathan Chan: Breaking the Wall.” I am extremely excited about the project, which is a documentary made by Shearwater Films, which is a small and talented team of filmmakers in New York. The goal of the project is to explore and show- case the creative musical opportunities to connect audiences with music in a way made possible by a 21st century musician. Ultimately, we would like to see the trailer reach a global audience, but are currently focusing on reaching a demographic in Asia.

How do you balance music and your ensemble, String Theory, with school and your social life?

Throughout my life, I’ve had great fortune to be able to pursue both music and academia at a very high level. I feel that beyond music and the cello, I am a great “people person.” I think I am outgoing and extroverted in my personality and have used this to bridge both these spheres of my life. I am always trying to see how things from different fields of study relate to each other. I try not to get caught up in whether or not different projects take time away from one another, but instead to see each opportunity enhances the other. In this sense, school enhances my musical life and my musical life enhances my social one. I embrace things one at a time and always try to prioritize things in order to keep myself focused and sane.

What advice would you give other musicians just starting out?

More often than not, one or two hours of the most inspired and creative practicing is much more effective than five hours of meaningless work. Reach out and practice communicating your passion to others.

To learn more, visit nathanchancello.com.

Morning Has Broken

fairweather enterprises

Fairweather magazine’s Mable Yiu got the chance to meet up with up-and-coming band Morningsiders in their cozy townhouse on the Upper West Side. 

RECENT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY GRADUATES Magnus Ferguson and Reid Jenkins make up the dynamic duo of what they call Morningsiders.

After being the only two who showed up during a snowstorm at a meetup for those who got in early to Columbia, Magnus and Reid started regularly bumping into each other in the city while still in high school. Once at Columbia, they starting “jamming” regularly and performing with their friends, for their friends.

While it may not be common for Columbia graduates to end up in folk music, both Morningsiders didn’t go to Columbia thinking they would end up with a career in music.

Reid, who was an earth science major, said it took multiple small steps that ended up leading him to his music path. “Because of the band, and other things, but mostly the band, I was more comfortable saying I’m not going to do that research career path,” he explains. “The day my thesis was due, ‘Empress’ was featured in a Starbucks commercial with Oprah and Starbucks. It really set in that I wanted this to be a career path after college.”

Since graduation, “We try to play a lot with just the two of us, and find awesome people to play with us,” says Magnus. “I think it’s import- ant to pick up an instrument, listen to others’ music, and play as much as we can.”

“Magnus used to be a fencer so he treats each show like a fight,” says Reid. How do they get inspired? “We get really excited to go to other people’s shows and get depressed at how good they are, and then get more motivatedto get better,” says Magnus. And how do they define “cool”? “All of my older brother’s music is my definition of cool,” laughs Magnus.

When asked what is one thingthey want to share with the world, Reid states, “We are not The Morningsiders, just Morningsiders.”

Vinyl Say

Mira Dayal

Jet Boy Records founder Rebecca Kiembock spins new talent.

REBECCA KIEMBOCK breezed into the room wearing retro American Apparel clothing and large hoop earrings, which dangled below her pixie-cut blonde hair. A gold ring pierced her nose and a Jet Boy tattoo in faded Times New Roman font adorned her inner right bicep.

Such is the attire for the 20-year-old head of Jet Boy Records, the recording and music management company she founded in 2011 and named after a favorite song of the hard rock band, the New York Dolls.

“I was very intimidated,” said Kiembock, referring to her entrance into the music industry. “But it’s a passion of mine.’’

Jet Boy is taking of both locally and internationally, ofering new alternative and punk rock bands booking, management and other services that boost their careers.

Kiembock, an East Hampton, NY, native who recently moved to Brooklyn’s vibrant Williamsburg neighborhood, signs unconventional bands and ofers them unique performance opportunities.

“I look for bands that I like and feel passionate about promoting,” said Kiembock, who cut her teeth in the music business interning with the independent label, Matador Records, and who enjoys listening to Kurt Vile and other indie rockers.

One of her new bands, The Amphibious Man, released its frst record and EP on vinyl this fall. The venture is Jet Boy Records’ frst time pressing vinyl, and Kiembock will help the Connecticut- based group choose which songs to include.

“We’re all literally worshippers of vinyl,” said The Amphibious Man frontman Jason Principi. “I mean the sound is real; it’s physically holding music.”

Principi said he was thrilled with the job Kiembock has done managing his band since signing with Jet Boy this past summer. “Rebecca is the best,” he said. “She’s so good with the music industry stuf, and she’s younger than most of us.”

Managing bands sometimes involves sour notes, like what to do when the musicians bail from gigs at the last minute. “It’s very easy to have things down on paper,” Kiembock said. “But you have to expect things to work out and to not work out.”

In addition to The Amphibious Man, Jet Boy Records’ roster includes the British band Beaty Heart, Hari and the Karis, and Shadow Lover. The label also books venues like Connecticut College, Cake Shop NYC and Bowery Electric.

In addition, promoting records, branding and producing shows are quite expensive. Trademarking, licensing fees and contracts add up. “You have to have some money to spend,” said Kiembock, who started Jet Boy with her own savings.

Kiembock strives to introduce undiscovered sounds to New York’s underground and popular music scene. “Taking music that I fnd in one part of New York and bringing it to the rest is what I want to do,” she said.

This fall, Kiembock, who spent two years at Oberlin College, enrolled in NYU’s music business program, hoping to sharpen her management skills and overall understanding of the industry. “It’s going to be an obstacle,” Kiembock said. “Luckily the classes I’ll be taking will beneft my label.”