Mia Michaels has been forging her own path between high art and mass entertainment since she started choreographing in her father’s Southwest Miami-Dade dance studio over three decades ago. And her singular vision, as unusual in the dance world as Michaels’ flamboyant physique and style — she’s a big-bodied, 5-foot-11 woman with a bleached blond pixie cut, serious tattoos and a taste for boho-punk outfits on the red carpet — has brought her to a career as striking for its range as for its success.
Perhaps best known for her nine-year stint as a judge and top choreographer on the long-running hit TV show So You Think You Can Dance, Michaels, 49, just choreographed her first Broadway musical, Finding Neverland. Based on the 2004 movie about how author J.M. Barrie created Peter Pan, the show opened April 15. Michaels has choreographed for Celine Dion in Las Vegas, for Cirque du Soleil, the movie Rock of Ages, and for pop stars like Madonna, Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan and Prince.
Yet she started out yearning to create serious work for the concert dance stage.
“I set out to be a modern dance choreographer, that was my goal,” Michaels said recently from her apartment in Williamsburg, the famously trendy Brooklyn neighborhood. “I wanted to bring my voice as a concert choreographer to the mainstream.”
Michaels has constantly shaped her creative voice to fit a changing and expanding platform. In the process, she has played a major role in bringing dance to mass-market entertainment. Her latest learning curve came on Finding Neverland, which is produced by film producer Harvey Weinstein, directed by Tony-winning hit-maker Diane Paulus (Pippin, Hair, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess), and which stars Glee’s Matthew Morrison as Barrie and Kelsey Grammer as his producer (and Captain Hook.)
Michaels was deep in rehearsals when she had to give up one of her most cherished creative tenets: Don’t make dances to illustrate or act out the lyrics of a song.
“I was always one of those artists who said you don’t listen to the lyrics — I always find that to be a bit corny,” Michaels says. “Not realizing that on Broadway you have to do just that. Then I had this aha moment. The lyrics are my guide!”
Her other big Broadway test was learning to play nicely with others.
“I’d gotten so used to directing myself, it was always my own vision, my dance, my costumes, my lighting,” she says. “I got so used to being my own island. Broadway is all about collaboration. It’s not about your vision. It’s about serving the story, the director, the producer. You have to dream with a machine — with 12 other artists.
“It’s the hardest thing, really. But I’ve always been about a good challenge.”
Michaels’ ambition and creative drive have brought her plenty of them. She started dancing in the Miami dance studio owned by her parents Joe and Ruth Michaels at age 2, and by 13 was re-choreographing her father’s routines. In her early 20s she was mixing serious concert dance — collaborating with South Florida modern dance choreographers, starting her own troupe — with choreographing and coaching teams for the competitive dance circuit and for Star Search, a then-popular TV talent show. She melded jazz, hip-hop and punk-pop music video moves with the emotion and expressiveness of modern dance.
“All my pain, my passion and fear and sadness and happiness go into my work,” Michaels told the Miami Herald in 1995. “I want to do music videos, I want to do tours, I want to do movies, commercials, everything.”
And she did. In 1997 Michaels moved to New York, and soon formed her own modern dance troupe, RAW (Reality At Work), which performed at dance festivals and avant-garde venues.
“I had a great response to RAW, and that’s when I felt I found myself as an artist,” she says. Then temptation came calling: Madonna summoned her to work on the Drowned World Tour in 2000. But Michaels and the queen of pop, two powerful creative female personalities, didn’t mix well.
“Me and her — were just not the right fit,” Michaels says. “It was one of the worst experiences of my life.”
Back home in New York, she found herself broke and wondering if her dreams had been all wrong.
“I was licking my wounds and thinking if that’s what it is to work at that level, if this is what it’s like to be on top as a choreographer, I don’t want it,” Michaels says.
But a still more commercial project saved her: Celine Dion’s A New Day for Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Director and Cirque du Soleil veteran Franco Dragone chose Michaels over much better known choreographic names from the U.S. and Europe. She spent months holed up in a rehearsal studio in Belgium (Dragone’s home country), working with concert dancers from around the world. Although the show and Dion got mixed reviews, Michaels’ choreography won an Emmy nomination and earned the praise of the New York Times, which said the show’s “greatest pleasure was the go-for-broke physicality of the choreography.”
“It was a big commercial job, and to me I kept my voice, Michaels says. When American Idol creator Nigel Lythgoe called about a new dance competition show, the Vegas experience encouraged Michaels to say yes.
“At first I was like, ‘A reality show, oh no, I’m never gonna do that,’” she says.
Instead, she spent nine years with the show, both as a judge and as one of its most popular choreographers. So You Think You Can Dance made Michaels a celebrity, and it changed her ideas of how dance could reach people. The passion and emotional integrity she brought to her dances, her push to make them expressive of something beyond showy steps, were a perfect fit with the show’s approach to making dance appeal to a mass audience.
“What I learned was how to tell a story,” Michaels says. “I had been about vocabulary, about movement. Doing a TV show, I knew that plain movement wouldn’t resonate with middle America. I started creating movement based on a story. I was good at it, and it happened very naturally.”
With Finding Neverland, Michaels had to stretch her expressive skills even further, continually adapting to constant changes in the script and songs. The show tells several stories: of Barrie’s creative odyssey in writing Peter Pan, inspired by what becomes a close relationship to the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four young sons; the conflicts with his doubtful producer (Grammer) and theatrical team; and the themes of imagination and childhood that have made Peter Pan such a beloved touchstone.
In the play-within-a-play scenes in which Peter Pan and the children fly about the bedroom, Michaels opted to have dancers in black lift them swooping into the air, instead of using the rigging that’s been famously used in Broadway productions of the classic musical version of Peter Pan.
“In every single Peter Pan they expect people to fly,” Michaels says. “Diane wanted it to be very hands on, very human. We fell in love with the honesty and simplicity of flying people. … I felt that was a big statement and really heartfelt.”
Michaels also successfully negotiated the show’s torturous path to the stage, which saw the famously temperamental Weinstein fire his first creative team. Weinstein praised Michaels in the New York Times, calling her “brilliantly innovative.”
“We’re all family now,” Michaels says. “I’ve never been a yes person, and [Weinstein] appreciates people who are passionate and honest and risk takers.”
She also got along well with Morrison and Grammer, the show’s stars.
“I’ve worked with many celebrities in my career, so I understand that dynamic,” she says. “Kelsey has such respect and admiration for the theater. … He was so awesome and patient. Even when he didn’t have to be at rehearsal he was still there. He worked his butt off.”
She was particularly happy with Morrison, a Broadway veteran who began his career as a dancer.
“He makes my job really easy,” she says. “He knows dance, knows his body, knows how to tell a story with dance.”
Although Finding Neverland received mixed reviews, it has been a hit with audiences drawn to its stars and its emotional, fantastical message, earning more than $1 million a week in the last five weeks.
Michaels, true to her populist inspirations, says she’s proud of the show.
“It may not be for critics. It’s a very family piece,” she says. “It turned into what I want it to be, a show for the people. People adore the show, they’re coming back twice a week. It’s touching people’s lives and to me that is more important.”
Now that Michaels has Broadway under her belt, she hopes to realize one of her biggest ambitions, to stage an original all-dance musical, like famed modern dance choreographer Twyla Tharp’s groundbreaking hit Movin Out, a “dansical“ set to the music of Billy Joel.
“It’s figuring out the right story, and whether it’ll be a catalog of music or original music,” Michaels says. “I’m excited about that. I know it’s in my stars.”
If you go
What: ‘Finding Neverland’
Where: Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St., New York.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday.
Info: 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com.