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'So You Think You Can Dance': A chat with choreographer and judge Mia Michaels

October 12, 2009 | 11:04 am

Miasytucd09_Mia_1849abrF “So You Think You Can Dance” fans know they’re typically in for a treat when Mia Michaels appears on the show, both for her memorable dances and her friendly outspokenness as a guest judge. As the sixth season moves on toward revealing its top 20, the Emmy-winning choreographer took the time to speak with us in the midst of working on the Canadian version of “SYTYCD.”  


What did you think of the fifth season of “So You Think You Can Dance”?
I have mixed feelings. It was definitely not my favorite year. I didn't do as much choreography as I usually do, and I wasn't completely inspired. Every season has its own feel and essence because of the kids, and last year was just -- I don't know, it wasn't as exciting as past seasons. The season before we had so many stars: Twitch [Boss], Kherington [Payne], Katee [Shean] and Joshua [Allen]. Everyone had their own distinct personality and look, and they were all very special. Season 3 for me was the best dancers; those were the prime dancers. This season, from what I gather from auditions, I predict should be one of the best. We just have to see if the great dancers and personalities make the top 20. It's just time, and between the shift in the show and the new set and the new time slot, I think it should be really good this year.

What will Adam Shankman bring as a judge?
He's going to bring Adam. I think that all the different opinions of all the different choreographers is going to be missed because I think you want to have all the different perspectives. I think it's important, but it's not my show. But he and Mary [Murphy] and Nigel [Lythgoe] have great chemistry together.

Last season, after you had some negative feedback for Brandon Bryant, did you feel any pressure, after Mary Murphy's emotional reaction against your comments, to be nicer to him?
They never told me not to say anything, but Mary and Debbie [Allen] were all about Brandon. His dance teacher was one of my students from Miami way back when, so there was history: I knew Brandon when he was a little boy. I never taught or trained him, but because he came from the lineage of my father's dance studio, I have more expectations from him. I compared him to Will [Wingfield], who was the same type of dancer, but look at the maturity and fluidity that Will brings. Brandon is so powerful, but he doesn't understand, maybe because of his age, how to connect movement as a mature dancer. More than anything he had a little bit of an attitude in Vegas that they didn't show: He was rolling his eyes and talking back to Lil C, and I am very old-school when it comes to my training. It's about the respect of the art and your peers and choreographer, and when that was going on I just lost it, and I was not happy about it, but I kept being hushed. So they edited it the way they wanted it to be. It's tough love, and when I did get to be with Brandon a couple of times we were able to talk it out and I could explain to him why I was so frustrated with him.

As a choreographer, are you ever disappointed with what you see on the “SYTYCD” stage?
Oh, my God! It's never polished, because we have such a short amount of time: We have five hours max to set the piece, light it, etc. Of course, even if you have a lot of time it's a live performance, and dance is so unpredictable, so someone could fall or brain fart and forget the choreography. I think the beauty of live performance is that you never know what you're going to get. Have I ever sat in the audience and wanted to put my head in my purse? I absolutely have, but at other times you realize, "Hey they're human and they do the best they can.” They're definitely going up there to give their all, ... and you have to take that into consideration. Not every day is going to be the best day.


How much of choreography has to do with the dancers or you have it already before you know who you have?  
Everybody's process is very different. Some prepare months in advance. I tend to wait until the last minute. What I'll do is have a big pot of music and have concepts in my mind that I'll jot down. I'll wait until I've found out who I have the night before. I tailor my choreography to who I have and enhance their greatness and hide their weakness, and I sit in my office and I dream and I pick the concept, and the next morning I create the piece on my assistants.

Where do you get your music?
I'm always listening. I like to listen to BBC a lot because they have interesting music, and I just keep my ears open all the time.  I'll go through my iTunes libraries a lot. I'm so in the moment. Every day one song might hit you one day that might really affect you, whereas a week ago it wasn't so great. Franco Dragone was the director of the Celine [Dion] show, and the one thing I learned from him is that there's magic in every moment that you look: You just have to be open to it. When you take that film off your eyes and look at something in a different way, you can find the art and find the magic in almost anything.

What were your favorite performances of your dances on the show?
I'm so hard on myself because I've never fully loved anything that I've done. I liked it, but I don't think that's brilliant, but that's what keeps me going back to the studio after all these years -- maybe this time this is when the brilliance is going to come in. I like moments and certain ideas. When I look at one piece, can I look at it completely and go, "Wow, that was completely amazing"? Not really. In the finale I was really proud of the butt dance performance and the addiction piece. There was a group number with Danny Tidwell that was a strong one for me. The door piece was very fun for me. The stick dance group number from Season 4, that was a cool one. I never understood what everyone got out of the bench piece. I just don't get it, but I have an Emmy sitting in my room for it, so I'm not going to dig too deep in it: I like meatier work; for me that was just a Disney version of being rejected. It was very lightweight to me.

About the addiction piece, my favorite part was the very beginning, because Kayla [Radomski] came to Kupono [Aweau] and he was just standing there.
It's so interesting because I've never had a problem with addiction other than trying to kick cigarettes. When I tap into those concepts, I really try to dig and understand what that would be like, and when I create them I'm not present, I'm in a zone. I don't remember creating anything, and I step out of it a month later and look at the work that I do. I'm like, "Whoa, wow. You used an instrument to help other people. That's really cool.” That's why I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing: The thousands of e-mails I get from people that are addicts, that piece has helped in some way. When I did that piece about meeting my dad in heaven, maybe it helped. Without being so clichéd, I think it's God helping me to help others. When I was doing the addiction piece, I knew that it was going to be something very special, and I kept saying to the kids, "This is a very important piece, and you need to respect the piece and listen to every word I say.” I dragged Kayla kicking and screaming the whole time, because she's so pretty and not comfortable with being ugly with her movement. They had an amazing breakthrough doing that session. She was bawling her eyes out the whole time, and the tears were coming and it was just really quite a process for all three of us, Kupono too, because of what he had gone through with his family. It was very special, and when I think of Season 5, that's what I remember: Kayla, Kupono and the addiction piece. For me, that was my favorite moment, being in that studio creating it with them.

Do you think the dancers have an advantage when the choreographers give them a dance that has a serious story behind it, like the addiction piece or Tyce Diorio's breast cancer dance?
It really depends on the choreography. You can take any concept and make it good or make it bad. You have to be very careful about how you tell the story with dance -- if it's too literal, it's too corny. Does it help if it's done well? Absolutely. But it's not done well if it doesn't do anything. I don't think anything will ever be awful on the show, because you have professional choreographers, and other than like three pieces that were awful in all five seasons, that's a pretty low percentage. When you do your craft for so long as all these choreographers have done it, it's not going to be tragic. It might not work, the magic might not be there one week, but it's still going to be a solid piece of work. Does a story help? Yeah, but if it's not choreographed well ... that's the thing, people have realized that no matter how good the dancers are, if you don't have great choreography, it doesn't matter. But if you have great choreography and not so great dancers, that is fine too -- choreography can hide your weaknesses and show your strengths.

Of your work with famous clients, which are you proudest?

I think I would probably say the Celine [Dion] show -- that put me on the map. It was quite an experience, and when I look back at it, would I have done the movement differently? Yes, of course, it was in 2002, so I'm different now, but I am so proud of that show. It was absolutely beautiful, and working with Franco was very cool. When you have a show that size, with a stage half the size of a football field, and 60 dancers, if you can do that show you can do anything. And my company -- I had a very small company, and that was where I found who I was as a choreographer. I was funding it myself, so I was teaching master classes in order to pay my dancers. They'd donate free studio space from 1 to 6 a.m., all night long, every single night. That was when I really found who I was as an artist.

Physically, what's something you can't do as a dancer that you wish you could?
I never danced professionally. It would have been really fun to work under other choreographers, though. I think that if I had, if my path would have called me to be a dancer first, I would not have the unique vocabulary that I have. I have nothing to pull from other than me. I think it's a blessing that it worked out that way, even though I would have loved to have danced under someone. Just recently I was going to do the VMAs with Janet Jackson for the Michael tribute, and we were in rehearsal for a week and I was committed, and the day before we left for New York, I herniated a disc and I was like, really, the one time --this is my first time, and it was probably my last. I was loving every minute of it, and I injured myself. I guess it's a sign that I'm not supposed to dance.

What TV shows do you watch?  
I love "Project Runway" and "America's Next Top Model." I'm such a gay man like that. You see the creativity and I love the beauty. My father was a model: He as the original Marlboro Man. We grew up with fashion and dance, so for me fashion and modeling -- which is why I love creating more couture stuff for my pieces because I love exploring fashion and the whole field.

— Claire Zulkey

Photo credit: Fox

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