The BalletNext Company is gearing up to perform at New York Live Arts from March 6 to March 10, 2018, after taking a hiatus due to the birth of the founder’s first child in 2017. The creative focus of the show involves self-exploration from both a personal and professional standpoint and the 2018 season will also include collaboration with live musicians.

Michele Wiles is the founder of BalletNext which she launched in 2011 with the goal of creating performances that combine visual arts with classically trained dancers. Wiles joined American Ballet Theater in 1997. She won a gold medal at the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria, and she also won the Erik Bruhn Prize in 2002.

In 2005, she was given the honor of becoming the principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre before establishing BalletNext in 2011 where she creates the majority of the choreography.

Michele recently granted an exclusive interview where she discussed BalletNext and more.

Dancing, ballet, and starting a company

Meagan Meehan (MM): You have been a professional ballet dancer since 1997, so how did you get into this art form and what was the process of breaking into the industry and establishing yourself?

Michele Wiles (MW): I initially got into ballet at the suggestion of my neighborhood dance teacher Susan Ina. She suggested that I take ballet to improve my technique so my jazz dancing would be better. I started taking lessons from Renee Rasa who was my first ballet teacher, and I absolutely fell in love with the art form.

There was something about it, it was my personality, and it was very natural to me. From there I took lessons from Donna Harrington who was with the Royal Ballet School in London. When I was ten years old, I got into the Royal Ballet summer school. Luckily another serious ballet school opened in Washington DC called Kirov Academy of Ballet—and they also gave me a full scholarship.

I went to the school for six years starting when I was ten. I just made the decision then to be a ballerina. I did local dance competitions, international dance competitions and was even on Star Search. That kept me performing a lot and was helpful for my education. Later, I auditioned for Boston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre (ABT), and I got second company at both. I joined the ABT Studio Company in 1997 and joined ABT in 1998. In 2000 I became a soloist and in 2005 a principal.

MM: You have won awards for your dance; so how did you select your pieces and did you choreograph your own award-winning performances?

MW: I won a Gold Medal at the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria, which is like the Olympics for ballet.

Fernando Bujones, Martine van Hamel-- they’ve all competed in that. I went to Russia to learn contemporary pieces, like “Carmen,” and was coached by some of the best coaches in Russia. Then I came to ABT and sent in a video for the Princess Grace Award, and I won that in 2000.

I also won the Erik Bruhn Prize with David Hallberg in 2002. These were pieces that I did not personally choreograph. I did choreograph a lot of solos at my aunt’s studio in Maryland, so our students could compete and win prizes (and they did!). Some of our students are principal dancers with Boston Ballet, another with Houston ballet and another is a Rockette.

MM: What was it like to be recognized and lauded for your dancing and how did it feel to become a principal ballerina?

MW: It feels great when people enjoy my dancing because I certainly enjoy it. To become a principal dancer at ABT was such a huge thing. I had trained for those six years and then was in the company for seven. It’s a special and unique thing that happened in my life. I worked very hard for it and sacrificed a lot. It was 15 years of hard work and training, and it felt good that it paid off.

MM: What gave you the idea for BalletNext and how does it differ from other companies?

MW: The funny thing is when I was promoted I had an injury. I didn’t have the name BalletNext at the time, but I had time to sit and think. My ride up until that point had been nothing but work in one direction. My injury gave me time to stop and think about what I wanted. I wanted to be married; I wanted to have a family. I wanted to be a more well-rounded person and to have other facets of my life.

Up until that point, I was just a ballerina. Being a principal dancer for those six years I went through the best coaches, David Howard and Irina Kolpakova, to name a few. It was a good run, and I decided that I wanted to expand myself in other directions, so I decided to start the company. It was probably one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done, but it developed me in another way as an artist. I’m still developing things like choreography, directing, learning how to bring up dancers and to guide them. It’s been an opening experience.

The base of the company is ballet technique, and we train in that every day. It is very intimate, there are no more than seven dancers at a time, including me. Everybody is a principal dancer. I like for everyone to have a voice. I think it is important for my daughter to see that, as a young woman. To see these young women dancers take ownership and responsiblity for what they do; it’s more like a family. These girls have other facets to their lives: they’re acting and modeling, and I’m open to that happening.

The other thing that’s different is that I collaborate with unlikely artists such as the famed jazz musician Tom Harrell. Jazz music and ballet is an unusual combination. The piece we worked on together is called “Vibrer.” This year we’re also collaborating with the incredible Bailey Anne Vincent, who is a deaf dancer. For that piece called “Follin,” we’re incorporating American Sign Language into the dance. I also think the work that we’re doing is very relevant with the conversations we’re having in the world today. We have a strong, all-female cast, with female duets.

MM: What was it like to establish BalletNext and how did you get it off the ground, promote it, and keep it alive?

MW: I have to constantly be engaged and be in it because if I’m not in it, then it doesn’t exist. I developed this business through my ballet training and my work at ABT. I am very committed and really believe in BalletNext, and I think it’s that commitment, plus the dancers that are involved and their belief in the work that we do, that keep us going. Everyone shows up to the studio every day and wants to create. We keep evolving, and people are contacting me, interested in the work that we do. A lot of dancers are looking for something like this: a safe environment to experiment. I think it’s the future.

Performances, parenthood, and goals

MM: What can audiences expect from BalletNext performances and what inspired the ones coming up in 2018?

MW: A lot of the work is inspired by who reaches out to me. Bailey Ann Vincent, the deaf dancer I mentioned earlier, reached out to me and asked if there was any way for us to collaborate on anything and I’m so thrilled with how this collaboration has turned out. One of our dancers, Violetta Komyshan, had been taking BalletNext classes. I remember when she was sitting in the audience and told me “I really want to dance for your company one day.” And now here she is!

What people will see on the stage is a very personal and organic process. They’ll see everyone connected and making eye contact. The pieces are very female-driven, and I think people will feel that connection and that authenticity from us, because of the way these relationships developed.

MM: You recently became a parent, so how has parenthood impacted your creative muse, if at all?

MW: I think it has greatly impacted me. I’m definitely a different person for it. It’s a major experience you go through. I’ve taught the baby how to crawl, how to walk. She’s learning everything from scratch. I feel like I’m parallel to that, I also had to learn how to dance again from scratch. She’s making me rethink and learn everything in a new way. When you go through that process, it’s good for your soul. You’re not constantly hounding away at things—you’re rethinking and that’s a crazy, creative thing to do.

MM: What are your ultimate goals for BalletNext and can people who want to work with you reach out to you via the website?

MW: Of course, I would love that. They can reach out on the website or via email at info@balletnext.com My goals are to keep creating and to keep choreographing. I love choreographing. I want to keep moving in that direction and keep collaborating with wonderful artists.

MM: Have you any other exciting and/or new creative endeavors on the horizon that you want to tell us about?

MW: I’m creating works at Columbia University and Utah University—which is super exciting. I feel completely honored that they want me to choreograph. This is something new for me, and I hope it continues. I’m choreographing a piece for eight women in Utah and six women at Columbia. The thing that thrills me is the creative process and to have these opportunities to make new works.