Dance Teacher Tips

Michele Wiles Puts a New Spin on Contemporary Ballet With Jazz Music

Photo courtesy of Ballet Next

In 2011, when former American Ballet Theatre principal Michele Wiles departed the company and formed BalletNext, she found an artistic freedom she'd been longing for. Along with new collaborations with choreographers and musicians, she began working with trumpeter Tom Harrell, who introduced her to the multilayered sounds of jazz. "The dancers are another instrument to a jazz musician," says Wiles. Pairing this music genre with her classical foundation has been pivotal in defining her style. "I have this classical facility, but my mind is more contemporary. Jazz is a good intersection for my work," she says.


In the company's 2018 spring season at New York Live Arts, Wiles continued to explore music and sound. Of the four pieces, Follin fuses dance with sign language, exploring silence with Robert Frost's poetry and music by Philip Glass, and Vibrer includes a live performance by Harrell and pianist Danny Grissett.

Hearing complicated jazz rhythms can be difficult, especially for classically trained ballet dancers, Wiles admits. When she teaches new choreography to the company, currently six women including herself, she starts with more popular music. "I'll use an artist like Drake," she says, "and then I'll play the jazz music. The dancers will be like 'Oh yeah, now I get it.'"

Artist: Ibeyi
Album: Ibeyi

"I absolutely love Ibeyi's debut self-titled album. They're French twins, and their music has Afro-Cuban, electro and hip-hop influences. I discovered them in Ibiza about two years ago. We use it mostly to take barre and one of my favorite choreographers, Mauro Bigonzetti, used their music for his new work for Alvin Ailey. I've always been inspired by this music, and now my dancers have it on their playlist!"


Artist: David Howard and Steven Mitchell
Album: Return to Covent Garden

"This album offers up gorgeous piano solos. They play each exercise twice, so you don't have to stop. All the music lends itself to a positive, musical and energetic class. I often use this for master classes. It reminds me of David, who I studied with for seven years, and his artistic approach to class."

Artist: Radiohead
Album: Hail to the Thief

"I've always liked Radiohead, but this album especially did it for me. Their music inspires me to improvise, which eventually turns into choreography. There is a deep emotional component to their music that I connect with, and my most fluid movement comes from working with this music."


Artist: Johann Sebastian Bach played by Vadim Chaimovich

"Any Bach concerto—they are witty and very charming. I particularly enjoy this inspiring version. Each concerto takes a different direction emotionally. The challenge of the music forces you to come up with a concept to tell a story. There is so much color and range to these works. We just recently performed a fun, comedic piece to Bach's concerto in D minor (BWV 974) after A. Marcello's concerto for oboe and strings for our spring season."


Artist: Tom Harrell
Album: Moving Picture

"My favorite piece so far is called 'Vibrer,' from the album Moving Picture. It's an exciting work that inspired and brought out many different sides of myself. There are hints of classical piano, which inspire my classical roots. There are groovy sections that allow ballet technique to be free and fluid. But in the end the music always brings you back. There is a clear structure, which gives you a lot of freedom to explore, but also a frame to work within."


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Dance Teacher Tips
At CPYB, students learn from an early age the importance of strong corps work. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy of CPYB

Dancers at the University of Arizona recently performed Jerome Robbins' Antique Epigraphs, an ensemble piece for eight women that requires intricate linear formations and walking in unison. "It was super-challenging for us," says dance professor Melissa Lowe. "Students needed a heightened sense of awareness, or it wasn't going to happen." Lowe asked dancers to use their intuition and aural sensibilities to help determine where they needed to be, when they should be there and how to get to those places—together.

Teaching dancers to work in unison, whether as a large corps de ballet or small ensemble group, is an integral part of their training. It requires teamwork, attention to detail and thoughtful preparation for a successful group effort. Teachers need to provide the right steps and counts to ensure cohesiveness, of course. But how you set the material will also encourage dancers to be in line and in sync—while still allowing them to be individuals.

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Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of University of Arizona

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Missing dancers can be disastrous for a group piece. "If it's a studio production, there has to be an agreement up front for students who want to be involved," says Lorita Travaglia, ballet mistress at Colorado Ballet. "When one person is missing and doesn't know what they're doing, it really does affect the whole group." Understanding the importance of commitment is a crucial part of dancers' (and their families') training. "They have the responsibility to everyone, not just themselves," she says.










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