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Letting Go and Hoping for More

At 22, American Ballet Theatre's Michele Wiles has the technical skills. Now she must master the drama.

July 07, 2002|JENNIFER FISHER

At 16, Michele Wiles, willowy, blond and physically gifted, won a gold medal. But no endorsement deals for cereal or athletic gear followed because Wiles was competing in the world of ballet, where leaping higher, faster and stronger is best appreciated when it can be harnessed in the service of art, not commerce. Nevertheless, her win, in Varna, Bulgaria, made her someone to watch. It's hard not to watch a dancer who starts with Wiles' basic ingredients--long limbs that seem to float into high realms (she's 5 foot 8), impressive turns and a gift for balancing that often elicits gasps.

But technical prowess, sometimes dismissed as an ability to do tricks, doesn't impress everyone. A critic in Toronto, where the 22-year-old Wiles, now an American Ballet Theatre soloist, recently won the Erik Bruhn Prize, called her "a technical monster," and she wasn't being complimentary. The New York Times' Jennifer Dunning offered a kinder appraisal after Wiles' debut as Medora, the main maiden-in-distress in ABT's "Le Corsaire" last month at the Met. Wiles appears as Medora in the company's upcoming engagement at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. "There is no one quite like Michele Wiles," Dunning wrote, "for big, easy dancing that is inherently classical but has the freedom and intensity of a horse bolting onto the course."

Dunning noted that Wiles started the ballet tentatively before "coming into her own" in the third act, an assessment with which Wiles agrees. "I was a little timid at first," she says by phone from a Lincoln Center office between rehearsals. "It was my first big thing onstage, and I was freaking out. But by the next time I did it, I felt more relaxed, and I could let go more."

"Letting go" is one of the major themes surfacing in Wiles' life these days, as her career suddenly shifts into high gear. Having joined ABT's second-unit Studio Company in 1997, she became a member of the main company's corps the next year, then was promoted to soloist in 2000. ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie says "letting go," or sinking into roles with dramatic effusion, is one of the keys to taking competition-winning skills to the next level in principal roles. "When I first saw Michele in the Studio Company and then in the corps," McKenzie says from his offices at ABT, "it was easy to see she had a wonderful facility, wonderful proportions, a lovely training. But she had to grow into it--it was all in there, but it was hard for her to open up at first. And you can't force someone to grow up; you have to see that the time is right and provide them with the right experiences."

Wiles had competed before, at events in Japan and in Paris, in 1996, but McKenzie says he didn't know that when he chose her to represent ABT for the Bruhn competition. Such experience, he says, guarantees only that you have nerves of steel, not that you'll be the best dancer. But McKenzie had already started to trust Wiles with a few principal roles--in Balanchine's "Theme and Variations" and "Prodigal Son"--and he suspected that working on an emotionally demanding pas de deux like the one from Kenneth MacMillan's "Manon" for the Toronto competition would be just the thing to push her to "the next step." He wasn't disappointed. After wowing the audience with regal exactitude in the demanding pas de deux "Grand Pas Classique," with partner David Hallberg, Wiles impressed the judges enough in "Manon" to win the competition (the male winner was Friedemann Vogel of the Stuttgart Ballet).

"I felt so proud, my God," McKenzie says with enthusiasm. "It was like watching a flower blossom. I saw things that I hadn't seen before, a little more of who Michele was and a glimmer of who she's going to be--a really open, strong, feminine presence."

"It was very cool," is the way Wiles puts it, after winning the small Bruhn Prize sculpture and about $5,000.

Like her dancing, Wiles voice is very youthful, appealingly assured yet somewhat reserved, as if she wants each word to be correctly placed. She has to be coaxed to talk about what has changed since that moment. For one thing, she's danced the star turn Rose Adagio from "Sleeping Beauty" on a mixed ABT program, and got the "Corsaire" lead, both opportunities having come up when principal dancer Irina Dvorovenko was injured. When replacing a principal, Wiles has the option to move into a star dressing room, but so far has felt comfortable at her usual place in the soloists' room, "where all my stuff is," she says. The support of everyone in the company--and her family and boyfriend, who attended her debut performance as Medora--makes her feel grounded. And there have been exciting perks she didn't expect, like her photo next to a "Pick of the Week" recommendation in New York's Time Out magazine.

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