Joseph Morrissey Has Revitalized the Dance Program at Interlochen Center for the Arts

Morrissey (left). Photo courtesy of Interlochen Center for the Arts

When Joseph Morrissey first took the helm of the dance division at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a boarding high school in Interlochen, Michigan, he found a fully established pre-professional program with space to grow. And his vision was big, with plans to stage the kind of ambitious repertory he'd experienced during his dance career. But the realities quickly set in. During his first year in 2015, the department was denied by the George Balanchine Trust to license any Balanchine ballets—the dancers were not quite ready.

This early disappointment didn't derail Morrissey. In just four years, he has not only raised Interlochen's training standards, he's staged ambitious full-length ballets and been granted the rights to works by Merce Cunningham, Agnes de Mille and, yes, Balanchine. Guest artists regularly visit, and he's initiated major plans to expand the dance department building. Morrissey is only 37, but it should come as no surprise that he's done so much so fast—his entire life's journey has prepared him to be an artistic leader.


Building the Tool Kit

Morrissey began ballet at age 7 at the Boston Ballet School. He often danced children's roles with the main company and became captivated with ballet's behind-the-scenes magic: the grandness of the theater, the gorgeous sets and costumes, the spectacular production elements (such as the hot air balloon in the company's Nutcracker). He developed an early interest in becoming a director. "It's never been a question in my mind that I wanted to produce classical ballets," says Morrissey.

He recognized that he would need a different skill set than the typical dancer, with an education that would give him a broad perspective of both dance and business. After spending his high school years at the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida, he received his BS in classical ballet at Indiana University. He then performed professionally with Boston Ballet II and Bavarian State Ballet in Munich, Germany.

Yet Morrissey knew his road to becoming a director wasn't going to come from being a ballet star. After three seasons in Munich, he left to pursue an MA in performing arts administration at New York University—a decision that surprised his colleagues and peers. But Morrissey wanted to understand all facets of the business. "Getting a master's degree was part of my goals," he says. His NYU education included courses in leadership, marketing and microeconomics, to name a few. "Having that backbone—it's an asset, for sure," he says.

Following NYU, Morrissey headed to the Portland School of Ballet in Maine, where he directed its Collaboration Outreach Responsibility Performance Scholars (CORPS) Program, a pre-professional curriculum for high school students. Then in 2013, he got a big opportunity overseas as director of artistic planning and touring for The Hong Kong Ballet. The position challenged Morrissey administratively. But when he learned about the opening at Interlochen, he decided to apply. "I saw an opportunity to really build something, and I love teaching," he says.

Photo courtesy of Interlochen Center for the Arts

"I saw an opportunity to build something—and I love teaching." —Joseph Morrissey


Leading the Way

Morrissey's first step as dance director was to beef up artistic programming. His first year, he choreographed a new production of The Nutcracker, staged a suite from La Bayadère, and brought in Paul Taylor's Company B and Mark Morris' Polka. The Nutcracker featured a live orchestra from the Interlochen School of Music, and other productions have had the institution's full design and production support—which included building a life-size elephant for La Bayadère. "That's the moment where people were like, 'He's not playing games,'" Morrissey says, joking.

Trey Devey, Interlochen's president, says he sees the difference not only in the students' performance but in everything that supports the artistic product, including marketing. "Because of Joseph's professional experience, he has held us to an appropriately high standard," Devey says.

Another priority for Morrissey was developing the men's program and maintaining enough male enrollment to support the artistic programming. "It's like not having enough violinists for the orchestra," he says. He has steadily maintained male enrollment at 25 percent of the student body by fostering a nurturing environment for all levels, as well as foundational training that can take a male dancer from the absolute base to a pre-professional level.

Lastly, Morrissey felt that it was imperative to invite guest artists in to teach, stage master works or choreograph. "It is very important when you are trying to build something that while you are building it, you're exposing it," he says. "You don't want to wait." Recent visitors have included Wendy Whelan, Craig Hall, Carlos Lopez, Leslie Browne, Herman Cornejo, Claudio Muñoz, Amanda McKerrow, John Gardner, Karine Plantadit, Deborah Wingert, Diana White and Paul Sutherland.

Then there were goals that would take much longer to achieve. Now within his fifth school year, Morrissey finally has the opportunity to add two full-time faculty members. And the entire institution is backing his desire for a complete renovation and annex of the existing dance building. "We knew that if we were going to take the program to the next level, we needed to invest in the infrastructure of the building," says Devey. "When we understood Joseph's vision, the physical manifestation became more visible to us." The slated 22,000-square-foot, $6.8 million facility broke ground in October.

The Outcomes

There are clear signs that Morrissey's efforts to build a premier pre-professional dance program are working. His early disappointment with the Balanchine Trust fueled him and his faculty to strengthen the dancers' training, emphasizing simple, skill-oriented combinations, shifts of weight, and speed and clarity of footwork. The curriculum is rooted in Russian methodologies, providing a pure classical base to enable students to take on numerous styles and varied repertory.

Deborah Wingert, a répétiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, has witnessed the students' progression and says the program now merits licensing the choreographer's works. "Getting to dance these ballets means you have enough of a classical base to warrant bringing in the artists who will come in and teach it, stage it or coach it," she says. Thus far, the school has gotten to perform excerpts of Balanchine's Serenade and The Four Temperaments. The program now also receives the rights to masterworks such as Agnes de Mille's Rodeo, Antony Tudor's Little Improvisations and Merce Cunningham's Changing Steps. And Morrissey has staged full-length productions of The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, as well as fully produced suites from Don Quixote and Le Corsaire—a level of repertory typically reserved for professional companies.

Additionally, over the past four years the dance program has been invited to perform at The Joyce Theater and Carnegie Hall in New York City, and to tour its full-length productions throughout Michigan. And students have received professional and university placements with the Alvin Ailey/Fordham BFA Program, Boston Conservatory, Indiana University, Butler University, Hubbard Street Professional Program, Nederlands Dans Theater, Oklahoma City Ballet and Boston Ballet II.

Morrissey's leadership is taking Interlochen's program to its fullest capability. With a new, larger facility, he hopes to eventually establish ballet, contemporary and commercial tracks, "where students can study the dance genre that they really want, with ballet as a through line," he says. "We need to keep the curriculum current and fresh to keep evolving to the needs of the dance world." His passion for ballet is contagious, and is clearly yielding beautiful results.

Dance Teachers Trending
"Music is magical," says Black. "It just transforms kids." Photo courtesy of Black

After 31 years of teaching, Kim Black has mastered how to reach young dancers. Between a studio and private school, she teaches 34 classes per week in Burlington, North Carolina: That's 238 kids from ages 2 to 6 years old. "You have to make them fall in love with dance," says Black. The music, she says, cues this engagement.

Keep reading...
Site Network

2019's movies featured some truly fantastic dancing, thanks to the hard work of many talented choreographers. But you won't see any of those brilliant artists recognized at the Academy Awards. And we're (still) not OK with that.

So we're taking matters into our own jazz hands.

On February 7—just before the Oscars ceremony—we'll present a Dance Spirit award for the best movie choreography of 2019. With your help, we've narrowed the field to seven choreographers, artists whose moves electrified some of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year.

Keep reading...
Dance Teachers Trending
Kathryn Alter (left). Photo by Alexis Ziemski

In every class Kathryn Alter teaches, two things are immediately evident: how thoughtfully she chooses her words, and how much glee she gets from dancing the movement and style of modern choreographer José Limón. At the 2019 Limón summer workshop at Kent State University, Alter demonstrated a turning triplet with her arms fully outstretched, a smile stretching easily across her face. "It should be as if…" She paused to think of the perfect analogy that would help the dancers find the necessary circularity of the movement. "As if you live in a doughnut!" she finished, grinning broadly. The dancers gathered around her laughed—her smile and love for something as foundational as a triplet was contagious.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Melanie George (right). Photo by Grace Corapi, courtesy of George

Teachers from coast to coast are pushing students to move outside the constraints of popular music. There is a consensus that the earlier you introduce varied musical forms, the more adept and adaptable a dancer's musicality will be.

New York–based jazz scholar and teacher Melanie George notices that many students' relationships to music can be reductive: They may think exclusively about lyrics or accents. But jazz, for example, is about swinging: an embodied comprehension of instrumentation that only comes with musical acuity. "Students are ready for this specificity, even if we aren't giving it to them," she says. When her students understand that there is a technique to listening, it becomes less about going forward, and more about going deeper into the sound and into their bodies.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in a scene from An American in Paris. Courtesy Fathom Events.

If you loved Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris on Broadway, you can now see the 1951 Oscar-winning movie it's based on in all its Technicolor glory. Fathom Events will present MGM's An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly and French ballerina Leslie Caron, and with music by George and Ira Gershwin, in select theaters nationwide January 19 and 22.

Keep reading...
Instagram
Photo by Rachel Papo

Alicia Graf Mack's journey to become director of The Juilliard School's Dance Division—the youngest person to hold the position, and the first woman of color—was anything but a straight line. Yes, she's danced with prestigious companies: Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But Mack also has a BA in history from Columbia University and an MA in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis; she pursued both degrees during breaks in her performing career, taken to recover from injuries and autoimmune disease flare-ups.

As an undergrad, she briefly interned at JPMorgan Chase in marketing and philanthropic giving, and she later made arts administration central to her graduate work, assuming that she'd eventually take an administrative role with a dance organization.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Valerie Amiss with students. Photo by Tracie Van Auken, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet

Jared Nelson, artistic director of California Ballet, demonstrates a tight fifth position as he talks to his class about the importance of rotating from the hips. "Having a visual image helped me as a dancer, so I try to demonstrate as much as possible," he says. "But I am also very conscious of word choice. Every dancer is different, and you have to phrase things in a language they will understand."

Teachers should always be aware of how they communicate with their students, including how they choose language for different individuals, classes or situations. Using the right terminology in early stages of training will ensure that students learn the proper names of steps. This foundation is crucial, particularly when so much of the classical vocabulary has been substituted by nicknames and phrases. (Think "lame duck" or "step-up turn" in place of piqué en dehors.) But good use of language also means using imagery and positive reinforcement to ensure the right kind of messaging. What teachers say in the studio could make the difference between dancers who listen—and ones who really hear.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Dance Theatre of Harlem's Derek Brockington and Da'Von Doane in Claudia Schreier's Passage. Photo by Brian Callan, courtesy of DTH

Back to your routine after the holidays, but still looking for something to watch? Then this new PBS documentary titled Dancing on the Shoulders of Giants is for you. The hour-long film tracks the creation of two dance pieces: Claudia Schreier's Passage for Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Sir Richard Alston's Arrived featuring students of Norfolk's Governor's School for the Arts. Both works were co-commissioned by the American Evolution 2019 Commemoration and the Virginia Arts Festival last May, in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of Africans to English North America and the history of slavery that followed.

Keep reading...
Instagram
Getty Images

Q: My tween is begging me to go to a faraway summer intensive, claiming "all my friends are going." How do I know if she's ready?

A: It can feel like a rite of passage for serious dancers to attend an intensive at a major ballet school. They dance all day and often explore the area's surroundings or attend performances on weekends. But living away from home, having a roommate and living the "dorm life" can be a challenge.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Kensington Macmillen in class at CPYB. Photo by Joel Thomas Photography, courtesy of CPYB

Last year, Kensington MacMillen auditioned for summer programs away from home for the first time. A longtime Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet student, MacMillen had spent previous summers at her home studio, but now she was ready to branch out. After auditioning for three programs, her first response was a rejection from Miami City Ballet.

"A bunch of people from here had gotten in, and I didn't," she says. "So then you just kind of panic." She was still waiting to hear from the other programs and worried that she'd have nowhere to go.

Keep reading...
Dancer Health
Physical therapist Meredith Butulis in action. Photo courtesy of Twin Cities Orthopedics

After a long tennis match or a basketball game, elite athletes often head straight to the locker room and hit the exercise bike. On first thought, this might seem to be overtraining, but in fact, they are pedaling as a way to cool down properly.

"All of our blood vessels get dilated and blood goes out to muscles when we are doing cardiovascular work," says Meredith Butulis, a physical therapist specializing in dance medicine. "The blood goes mostly to the leg muscles, and blood pooling there is a real phenomenon. If your blood doesn't get back to the heart and brain, you can pass out."

She goes on to explain there are two ways to recover from an intense workout: actively, using a low-intensity movement to gradually bring the heart rate down, or passively, with no activity at all. The latter requires little explanation—how many times have you seen a dancer do a run-through and follow it up by sitting down on the side of the studio in a static stretch? But for many reasons, including the real possibility of blood pooling that Butulis describes, a passive recovery is not the best choice for dancers.

Keep reading...
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy courtesy of NY Studio of Irish Step Dance

Growing up, Melissa Weigel spent most of her time at Irish step dance competitions. She was a regular at regional, national and world events, representing her hometown studio, located just outside of Chicago. But by the time she graduated from college, she was ready to hang up her dancing shoes. "Dancing beyond college was a full-time commitment, and I wanted to balance my love of dance with my nondance career." She took a step back from competitive performing, pursued a career in conservation investments and enrolled in classes at The New York Studio of Irish Step Dance. She now teaches for the studio one night a week and enjoys the challenges of working with adult recreational dancers in an advanced/championship class, many of whom have backgrounds like her own.

"We have a lot of dancers who used to dance growing up and are looking to get back into it as an adult, as well as some who are picking it up for the first time," she says. "They are all here taking classes to have fun and to get some great exercise."

Keep reading...

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox