Getting to Know Michael Vernon

by Nicole Harris

I have to admit, there are very few forces in the world that can make me voluntarily take ballet class. Michael Vernon is one of those forces. I met Michael at a Manhattan Dance Project workshop many years ago. Every year we would bring our students out to take class with Michael and the rest of the faculty. (psst! Keep an eye out for interviews with other MDP faculty too!) Sadly for me (although luckily for the students there) Michael became the Chair for the Department of Ballet at Indiana University right around the same time that I moved to New York, but whenever he's back in town I do my best to get over to Steps on Broadway (where he is on the faculty) to get in a few pliƩs.

Sarah Friswell, who has taken many of Michael's classes at Manhattan Dance Project over the years, chatted with Michael about his life as a choreographer, dancer and teacher.

SF: Who are some of your favorite choreographers? MV: George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Frederick Ashton.

SF: What’s your hometown?
London, England

SF: What made you realize you wanted to be a choreographer?
It was just a natural transition about the same time as I started dancing. My first teacher was a choreographer with choreographic classes so I grew up with it.

SF: What has been your favorite piece that you’ve choreographed and why?
A piece with music by Philip Glass called “Endless Night”. I loved the music and loved the quotation by William Blake where the piece got its name.

SF: Do you have any unique fixes for “choreographer’s block”/what do you do when you get stuck while choreographing?
Just push through it. Either stop and think or go slowly. It’s like anything. You sometimes fall back on something that you know works and you can always change it later. Listen to the music. You can always come back. No steps are really set in stone as they say.

SF: Do you prefer to work with a small group or a large group?
MV: It depends. That’s hard to answer. It depends on the ballet. You can get a great effect with big groups. Small groups you can work with detail and get to know the dancer so much better.

SF: What do you do first: choreograph steps then find music or find music and then choreograph steps?
Music first.

SF: What is your favorite thing about being a choreographer?

MV: The form of expression. One is born into this sort of life and it’s satisfying. It’s the whole process of working with dancers, music, and a concept and putting it together on stage.

SF: You have an incredible background in ballet. Have you ever choreographed anything other than ballet?
I studied Graham, Cunningham, tap, jazz, historical dancing, musical theater in the UK and was in a Broadway show. I use a balletic background, sometimes pure ballet and sometimes based on ballet.

SF: Do you prefer choreographing, teaching, or a combination of the two?
I love teaching, I’m not saying I’m a good teacher, and I enjoy choreographing, I’m not saying I’m a good choreographer. But I believe they go hand in hand.

SF: What has been the most memorable experience of your career so far?
Studying with Margot Fonteyn and Nureyev in the same building with the Royal Ballet at its heyday.

Photo Courtesy of Indiana University.

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