Making Mia: 3-time Emmy winner Mia Michaels talks So You Think You Can Dance, choreography on YouTube & her next act

She’s worked with the likes of Madonna, Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, Prince and Celine Dion. She’s choreographed for Cirque du Soliel and the Rockettes, served as guest artist and mentor at Broadway at the White House hosted by Michelle Obama, and choreographed the movie Rock of Ages featuring Tom Cruise and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Yet with all that to her credit, millions of Americans were introduced to the work of Mia Michaels on So You Think You Can Dance.

During the show’s second season, she choreographed a piece to the song “Calling You” by Celine Dion that would become a watershed moment for dance on modern television. Known as “The Bench,” it was the moment when contemporary dance as an art form became something consumable and relatable to a mass audience through television.

“The stars aligned and it was a moment in TV that was very honest and human. It was something that was so simple and so provoking and so real,” Michaels explains. “It’s almost like it was a moving portrait.”

Michaels set out to be a concert dance choreographer – her goal to be the next Twyla Tharpe – and along the line, she got called to do Madonna’s Drowned World Tour and then Celine Dion’s Las Vegas spectacular. That’s when SYTYCD came calling. Michaels remembers the first season of the show being very “nondescript” and that while she was still trying to fit herself into the concert dance world, she was ready for a change. That happened with “The Bench.”

“I wanted to tell a story clearly without the complexity of choreography and make it a beautiful moving portrait. That changed my career forever. It wasn’t just the dance world; my work became accessible to the whole world. People took to that kind of work because they could see themselves in it. That was the moment that changed my direction as a creator.”

As a creator, Michaels describes herself as someone who always listens to her instincts; someone who can assess the environment, the job, and what the producers are asking of her and then go into what she calls “Mia World,” a place where she’s true to herself and her vision – a place of nonconformity.

“I’ve always lived in the middle; I’m too artistic for the commercial world but I’m too commercial for the concert dance world. It’s a blessing and a curse that made it difficult to get started as a choreographer, but I sat with my authentic way of creating – a little off center from the commercial world – and I never strayed from that.”

After “The Bench,” Michaels created powerful dance pieces that made her one of the standout choreographers on SYTYCD. She even sat on the judging panel full time for a season, her presence becoming a constant jolt to the creative atmosphere of the show and an inspiration to the dancers with whom she worked. That inspiration began inside of her, from her experiences and the stories of her life.

“I’m very aware and open,” she says. “I always have a panoramic, rose-colored glasses sort of view of the world. I’m aware of where the magic may be hiding and I find magic in everything. I can look at anything you look at on an everyday basis and see if in a different way. It can completely change your life. It can be a catalyst for something really inspirational. People, concepts, music, photographs, art – any little thing can spark me.”

Some of those sparks come in the form of incredibly personal stories. Michaels says the key to being an artist is having the courage to be honest and painfully truthful.

“It’s been my therapy in a way; it’s been my diary. I’ve gotten it out in that way. When I have stuff inside me, I just get it out through dance. Pain from loss or love from relationships, it naturally funnels into my creativity, and sometimes I don’t even realize it. I’ll look at a piece and realize the art entirely relates to my life. A lot of dancers and choreographers hide behind steps because it’s safe, but for me that’s not an option. I need to relate as a human being using the human body.”

That honesty and unfiltered sharing of emotion is what draws people to her work, something made evident through pieces on SYTYCD such as “Time,” the dance about reuniting with her father in heaven. Another example was what became known as “The Addiction Dance,” a moment when life-changing art once again converged with television and became larger than just another dance between commercial breaks.

“It’s kinda like when you see the Rocky movies and they work so hard to get to the other side of his training. He works so hard to get there and then he keeps pushing. When you see work that dancers are so invested in, when they’re pushing themselves emotionally and physically, we connect to it. It’s the human way. We push ourselves to be better and more optimal. It’s beautiful but it’s real,” Michaels says.

“When we hear a singer let themselves go and wail from their gut, you feel that emotionally. It does something to you. It’s the same when a dancer lets go and touches that emotional truth and honesty. It’s rare. There are artists like Prince, whose audiences truly connected with them, and that’s because they were transparent emotionally. People will connect to artists who let themselves go there and be real.”

Ironically, in order for her to let herself go, Michaels has to become singularly focused on the work at hand. While that may seem like diametrically opposite concepts, she says when she’s in a project, she eats, sleeps and breathes that project.

“I work on it all day and dream about it at night,” she says. “I thrive in the creative place of a project. With Celine’s show, we had a year of creating and it was amazing nonstop creativity. Working with Franco Dragone was like working next to Fellini. He was deep and dark and mystical. I’m all or nothing when it comes to projects.”


The Broadway cast of Finding Neverland. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Michaels brought that focus to Broadway as the choreographer of the big-budget Broadway musical Finding Neverland, but she says people didn’t know how her intimately personal artistry would translate into such a different medium of storytelling.

“It was very different; challenging in a great way. In theatre, it’s all about your collaboration. You’re being challenged to push yourself in a new way – to tell the story differently,” Michaels said. “I’ve always been my own director, but when I was under Diane Paulus who directed our show, we challenged each other and it was a beautiful collaboration. It’s not about the dance really. It’s about the story first and foremost. The lyrics and the music are all about the story and then you create the movement.”

Mia_Michaels_2010_Creative_Arts_Emmy_Awards_n-mKh0ajikblSYTYCD brought Michaels three Emmys, more than any other choreographer in the show’s history, and hers wasn’t the only career affected. The show has catapulted the careers of dozens of dancers and choreographers who are now working on tours with musicians, on Broadway, on TV shows and leading their own dance companies. The trend of dance being the centerpiece on television continues to escalate, and with so many opportunities for so many voices in dance, Michaels looks back on SYTYCD and that new jumpstart it gave her with gratitude.

“It put dance and choreography in the mainstream,” she says, “and there’s great work everywhere. I think dance being celebrated is fantastic and it should be. Now, not only do people know the word ‘choreography,’ but they love the word and have their favorite choreographers. It was a wonderful platform.”

That platform has widened exponentially as social media has become the bearer of viral videos and YouTube has allowed anyone to view an artist’s body of work at will, something Michaels wishes were different.

“Dance is a funny thing. Because of social media, you can literally go shopping for people’s work. Everything is accessible. It used to be that when you loved a choreographer, you sought out their company and went to see it in person. You left with a memory and an in-person inspiration. Now, people can go shopping for it online and that connection to the art is missing. I think the dance world is a big stew now because no one can stand out. People can literally steal your work and style just by pulling up a video. You can learn every step at home and recreate it.”

She does say, however, that ability to recreate choreography at home is a valuable tool for an aspiring artist who wants to learn about forms of movement. Still, she recognizes the widespread availability of the art was, in some cases, stealing the uniqueness of the artists who were creating it.

“It took a lifetime to create my style and hone my craft because I wanted my own voice as an artist,” she says. “Now, [choreographers’ signature work is] all blending together. I realized to stay ahead of that, I would have to constantly reinvent ‘Mia Michaels’ as a choreographer. I could go into a studio and reinvent myself and my next phase of movement, but even then, that would be online for anyone to copy, which would put me right back where I started again.”

After working so hard to carve out a niche, Michaels says she has no desire to reinvent herself as a choreographer. “I feel like I climbed that mountain,” she says. “It was an amazing mountain and it was so good. It was so good.”

This concept of standing out and being unapologetically fearless is something she’s bringing into many of the new endeavors of her life. In her first book to be released next spring, A Unicorn in a World Full of Donkeys, Michaels hopes to inspire and encourage people to stand in their authenticity & never conform. “You’ve got one life; live it loud,” she says.

Apart from her book, she has an online global master class series and mentorship program where she encourages dancers and artists to challenge, train and take their craft to the next level under her guidance. She also has a plus-size women’s fitness line coming soon, which was something she was inspired to create because, as she says, “I’ve always been a bigger girl. That’s actually what pushed me to be a creator of dance: people didn’t want me to dance because of my body. I’m standing up for women of size.” She is not only looking to grow this as a global dance portal but develop into a motivational & inspirational movement.

Michaels is also the newly appointed creative director of the world famous Joffrey Ballet, but more than simply taking on another artistic endeavor, she’s taking care of herself. Having solely focused on her career for so long, she’s surrounding herself with what fills her: her English bulldog, her friends, and her relationship.

“My whole life,” she says, “I’ve been about work and career and pushing for what’s next. But for some reason after doing the Radio City show last year, I looked at what I’ve done and saw I’ve really accomplished so much. It was the first time in my career when I said, ‘Wow. I’m proud of myself.’ It gave me a sense of ‘OK. Now it’s time.’ I started making space for myself and my friends and fitness and for love. I’ve never done that before. Sure enough, as soon as I started making room for that, my life started changing. It’s such a wonderful balance and I’m in a really happy place. I’m growing and learning and I’m not just in a studio making movement. I’m making Mia.”

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Story by Ryan Brinson
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