Teaching 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."


Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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Teaching Tips
Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

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Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy TUPAC

When legendary Black ballet dancer Kabby Mitchell III died unexpectedly in 2017, two months before opening his Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, his friend and business partner Klair Ethridge wasn't sure she had what it took to carry his legacy. Ethridge had been working with Mitchell to co-found TUPAC and planned to serve as its executive director, but she had never envisioned being the face of the school.

Now, Ethridge is heading into her fourth year of leading TUPAC, which she has grown from a fledgling program in an unheated building to a serious ballet school in its own sprung-floor studios, reaching hundreds of students across the Tacoma, Washington, area. The nonprofit has become a case study for what it looks like to carry out the vision of a founder who never had the chance to see his school open—and to take an unapologetically mission-driven approach.

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