How “Finding Neverland” Flies Powered by Imagination
The national touring production of “Finding Neverland” made a recent stop in Tulsa. The Broadway show tells the incredible story behind one of the world’s most beloved characters Peter Pan created by playwright J.M. Barrie. We meet the author at a point when he is struggling with what to write. He finds inspiration after meeting four young brothers and their beautiful widowed mother. The boys’ make-believe adventures in a park inspire him to write “Peter Pan.”
So, when I read Tony® Award-winner director Diane Paulus made an intentional decision not to fly people on rigging, I was curious how the production would handle that element. I was not disappointed and it was nothing short of magical as “Finding Neverland” Emmy-winning choreorgrapher Mia Michaels made these characters soar.
A small confession, I am a huge fan of Michaels and have watched her work on “So You Think You Can Dance,” for years. I remember in season two of SYTYCD, what has become known as the “Bench Piece” or the “park bench dance.” Danced by Travis Wall and Heidi Groskreutz, it is considered a ‘game changer.’
Michaels used grief to create the piece as a response to the death of her father and told the story of a woman meeting her father in Heaven. It won Michaels the first of her two Emmy Awards.
Michaels used storytelling in her choreography for “SYTYCD.” In “Finding Neverland,” she continues to use storytelling as the central them in every movement. In the show, the four young boys imagine they are flying.
“We decided to do it manually through the human body and doing lifts as dancers and movers,” said Michaels during an interview John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. “So they fly through the air that way instead of using wires. It feels so homemade. I’m Italian, and our version of Peter Pan feels to me like Grandma’s Sunday sauce for the soul. One of my favorite scenes is at the end. That’s all I that I am going to say. But it takes you to a place that is so unexpected and so beautiful. It’s not glossy. It’s very real. And I love that.”
Excerpt from Q&A with John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts
John Moore: When you left the TV show you specifically talked about wanting to expand your creative horizons and take on new challenges. What is it about Broadway that fulfilled that need in you?
Mia Michaels: Well, I did almost 10 years of television, and when I started the show, I was very much a concert choreographer. Dance then was all about complexity and phrases and human movement. It really wasn’t so much about storytelling. It was more about concept. I did one season of “So You Think You Can Dance?” and I remember just going, “I’m bored.” And so I started exploring storytelling. I fell into it so organically.
The first story that I told was the Bench Piece, which I won an Emmy for, and it came out of me so naturally. I mean, I started exploring storytelling as a concept in a matter of 90 seconds: Trying to tell a story with the human body, and really make sense of it. I just fell in love with storytelling and didn’t even know that was inside of me until I did “So You Think You Can Dance?” And then after a couple years of that, I knew I wanted to go back to the stage.
John Moore: You mentioned the Bench Piece, and that was obviously a watershed moment in your career. It was written of you: “That was a turning point for the show, and Mia Michaels changed the game forever.” When you set out to do with the Bench Dance, were you out to change all the rules of dance?
Mia Michaels: I didn’t, no. I’m one of those people who is always breaking rules, but I’m not ever setting out to break rules. It’s just that I’m constantly seeking newness. I’m constantly seeking the unknown. That’s very scary for a lot of people. Some people would call me a Banshee rebel artist, because I’m not afraid to break new ground.
I didn’t know, honestly, that I was going to create the Bench Piece when I went into rehearsal that day. I’m very instinctual, and I create in the moment. I create from my truth, and from what I know, and from my life experience. I tend to think that when you are an artist, and when ego and self get out of the way, then you’re a vessel for something much greater than yourself – and something much greater comes through you. I try to get out of the way. When the Bench Piece was created, it was a moment in time that was like, “Boom, OK, there it is.” It’s interesting because, yeah I don’t even remember a moment of how it was created.
From TV to Stage
John Moore: So Diane Paulus approached you. I imagine it must have been intimidating to get a call from someone who’s been named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME Magazine.
Mia Michaels: Yes.
John Moore: But part of her genius has to be in knowing who to call. Like knowing to call you and other members of your Finding Neverland creative team who don’t come from a traditional theatre background. That kind of out-of-the-box thinking is part of what makes her great, isn’t it?
Mia Michaels: I totally agree. I think that’s why we get along so well, and why we create so well together – because she’s not afraid, either. Diane Paulus likes to surround herself with really creative people. It’s like this very powerful force that happens between her team and herself. She is not one of those directors who stifles creativity; she encourages it. She never, ever stops any creativity. We throw it against the wall and see what’s right. She loves to see it all, and hear it all before she makes her decisions. I think the people who make the greatest directors are those who hire really creative people and then they let them create.
Approach to Finding Neverland
John Moore: So I’m curious about the approach you took to Finding Neverland. If you’re a rule-breaker, tell us what are those signature rules that you have broken here?
Mia Michaels: Ours was definitely not a traditional Broadway approach. The choices we made musically, directionally and choreographically were just not traditional. Finding Neverland is its own thing and it has its own unique voice. And I think it’s very unexpected. It has humor to it. It has emotion. And there are a lot of unexpected twists and turns. When I was creating the vocabulary for it, it took on a life of quirkiness. It lives in its own world in Neverland. Every project has its own personality. It tells you what it wants to be. For me, because this is my work, I don’t really think of it as different. But people who see the show go, “Wow, it’s so different.” And they are right. Everything about Finding Neverland is very different.
Dance and Kids
John Moore: The list of stars you have worked with boggling, starting with Madonna and Celine Dion. But you are also known for your passion for quality dance education. It must be a lot of fun for you to choreograph for kids who don’t know who you are.
Mia Michaels: It definitely is. Sometimes it’s better when you’re working with kids who don’t know who you are because then they don’t get caught up in the celebrity of it. It’s not for any other reason but to come into the room and work and grow and become a better artist. I love it, actually, when nobody knows me. Inspiring the next generation is really, really important for me.
In fact, that is more important than any actual step I could teach them. I teach them about professionalism and work ethic and seeking out your own voice as an artist and not trying to conform to anyone else. Those are lessons you can’t learn in any school. My whole career has just been trial and error. I really had no guidance other than my instincts, and I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons along the way. So if there’s anything I can do to help the younger generation avoid those pitfalls I hit along the way, then it is very important for me to do that. I tell them to stand in their own uniqueness.