Renowned choreographer Mia Michaels, 48, is making her American Repertory Theater debut by choreographing its world-premiere production of Finding Neverland, playing through Sept. 28. Born and raised in Miami, she studied at the New World School of the Arts and attended summer sessions at Jacob’s Pillow. She has worked with musical artists such as Celine Dion, Madonna, Ricky Martin and Prince, and she choreographed Cirque Du Soleil’s world tour Delirium, as well as the film Rock of Ages. A three-time Emmy Award winner for her work on the television show So You Think You Can Dance, she is the founder and artistic director of the New York dance company RAW. In 2013, Variety named her one of its “most innovative women.”
Jonathan Soroff: Favorite dance you ever did for So You Think You Can Dance?
Mia Michaels I hate everything I do, so it’s not a fair question. If I had to choose one…I can’t, because I’m not a fan of my work.
Well, I used to dance when I was younger. Dance is just what I do. It’s what I’ve always done. It’s very second nature to me. I have moments when I’m in love with it and moments when I’m wondering what I’m doing. I’m really hard on myself, which constantly pushes me to be better. I keep hoping that someday I’ll get to that place, sometime before I die, where I feel like I’ve learned enough to be a brilliant creator. To me, I’m just OK.
[Laughs] I think they need to bring back the Bump.
I was a bun-head! I grew up wanting to be a ballet dancer. But my ass was always too big, so I was never really built for it, and I was never able to go down that road. I started as a jazz dancer. Then I got really into ballet, but once I realized that my body was never really cut out for it, that’s when I started choreographing. I thought, “If nobody wants me as a dancer, I’m going to create my own world of dance.”
I have to choose? I would probably say Gene Kelly. The athleticism. He was way cuter. [Laughs] But they were both incredible. The finesse of Fred Astaire, you can’t touch that. And yet Gene Kelly was such a guy’s guy, too. I love both qualities, and I love that you asked that question, because I’m a big fan of old Hollywood.
I would love to have seen Bob Fosse. I don’t know if she still performs, but I would kill to see Sylvie Guillem. And of course, Gene Kelly. That whole era would have been really cool to see. The Nicholas Brothers.
I have to say Beyoncé. She’s unreal. As a performer, she kills it. She’s in those heels, and she’s dancing full out, singing full out…it’s just amazing.
I’d love to work with her. But you know who else I’d love to work with? I would love to direct a tour for Rihanna. I think she’s a darker, filthier, raw talent, and I love that. I’m very much attracted to that. I would love to create for her.
[Laughs] There are a few people. Life’s too short, and I wouldn’t want to waste precious time not having fun. When it becomes so stressful and awful, the process becomes horrible, and the question becomes: Is it worth it? So I won’t name names, but I’m talking about the artists who think they’ve arrived. Their ego is beyond, and they’re difficult, horrid to everyone, total nightmares. It’s just a big “Ew.” I’m not going to waste my time dealing with that. So I try to pick and choose my projects wisely.
My feet are beautiful. I’m very, very funny about my feet. I get a pedicure regularly. You’ll never see my toes looking raunchy, and yet I’ve danced barefoot my whole life. Every two weeks, I have them done. I’m such a girl like that.
Theater—or at least this experience—is way faster. I thought television was fast. I don’t know if it’s because we’re creating an original show, but time is so limited, and you’ve just gotta make it happen. For me, that’s been the hardest thing, because I haven’t been able to detail my work. It’s more about broad strokes right now. Does the structure work? It’s not just me choreographing a piece. It has to live within this larger world. It has to work for the story and for the whole show. It’s a whole new beast.
Absolutely. Everything is story-driven, and if it doesn’t tell the story, no matter how pretty it is, it won’t stay in the show. But finding that is awesome. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I’m learning and growing every day, being pushed, and I hope that my part in this helps to make the voice of Neverland really unique. That’s my goal. I love this show.
Wow! That’s a really interesting question. I don’t know. I guess there’s something about the mouth, and the hands. I tend to emphasize that. I like the sound of breath. The sound inside the emptiness of music, if that makes any sense.
Oh, gosh. You know what I’d love to do, because I don’t really dance anymore? My body is so busted from years and years of doing what I do. I would love, love, love to find a really crunchy granola organic movement, like downtown New York, that I could take class in. I’m talking about hairy-armpit kind of dancing, all about breath and movement, that feels good in the body. Whereas what I do doesn’t feel good in the body. What dancers like about it is they feel like a f—ing beast when they nail it. You feel so powerful and strong, like a superhero, if you can get through some of my work, because it’s so physical. It’s definitely a tough style. I could never do it now.
When I was younger, I broke a lot of bones, but it was just as often walking down the street as from dancing. But when I was a judge on SYTYCD Canada, I hurt my back one night during editing, and I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks. That was rough. It was six years ago, and it changed my life. I used to move a lot more before that injury, and I really haven’t been able to move or dance the way I always did before that. Now I’m one of those teachers and choreographers who paint the movement on dancers. I direct it. I can show the essence, but physically, I’m not there anymore, which sucks.
Of course. You know what I would love to be able to study and do well? Latin ballroom. I think it’s so hot.
Contemporary. [Laughs] I’m sick of the same thing over and over. I hate it. It’s so annoying. Everybody just rips off everybody else, and it’s so overwrought. There’s no individuality, and it’s all so angst-ridden. They’re all depressed or crying about something. Everybody just needs to stop. I just can’t. And the funny thing is, I was one of the people bringing it to the forefront. But when I look at how overly dramatic it is, I’m like, “Come on.” You can actually laugh and do contemporary movement. It doesn’t always have to be depressing.
I’m a big fan of European contemporary dance. It’s way more cutting edge and ahead. Artistically, Europe is by far more interesting. They take more chances and make different choices, partly because it’s not as commercial.
For me, it would be my choreography, because it tells my story. When I look at the work that I’ve done, good or bad, it’s like a living, breathing diary.