Keith Michael, who’s been working in the Dance Division for 16 years, describes his pre-Juilliard jobs as a selection in contrasts. They range from administrative assistant to the temporary employee department of insurance giant A.I.G. to captain and tableside cook at New York City’s tony Top of the Sixes restaurant. Keith has also been a dancer and choreographer for New York Baroque Dance Company and Juilliard faculty member David Parker’s the Bang Group. Born in Gettysburg, Pa., Keith grew up in various small Pennsylvania towns and earned his B.F.A. in theater arts from Case Western Reserve University. While he was there, he changed his pursuits to dancing and choreographing, and one of his first ballets was a one-hour version of The Nutcracker for the New York Ballet Theater in 1985. That production was reprised annually through 2010, at which point, he produced a new version—this time with an Art Nouveau sensibility—that will be performed at Florence Gould Hall and other locations in December.
Tell us about your first Nutcracker.
Through most of my school years, I had a touring marionette company. In fifth grade, one of my staples was a specialty act with a juggling clown to the Russian Trepak using a 78 r.p.m. recording with lyrics by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. In high school, I had a 35-marionette version of The Nutcracker with a growing Christmas tree, toy soldiers, dancing flowers and butterflies, a black-light scene (of course) and for the Chinese dance, a goldfish that blew pearl bubbles.
What has been hardest—and most fun—about remaking a classic?
Getting out of my own way was the most difficult thing about starting again. I knew the Tchaikovsky score intimately, and knew every step crammed into every note of my original choreography, so the invigorating thing was to hear it and see it all again as though I had just found this music and story at the back of a shelf —“Hey, this might be good for a ballet!” I tried to go into rehearsal every day literally not having any concept of what I wanted to happen. I knew that if I were surprised, I was doing something right.
What job at Juilliard would you like to try out for a day and why?
I’ve always wanted to sit in the costume shop for a day or a week to see firsthand the processes and expertise involved in creating the hundreds of costumes that the artisans in this shop make every year.
What’s the most memorable job you’ve ever had?
Between my junior and senior year in college, I came to New York for the summer to “try it out.” I got a job at the Jim Henson Studios “styling” 16,000 yellow feathers for three new Big Bird costumes for ice shows. Later that summer, I got to make a ski jacket for Ernie and a typewriter that Cookie Monster ate on the Christmas Eve on Sesame Street TV special.
How do you balance your job and your artistic endeavors?
I do consider my Juilliard job as that of a choreographer—moving a huge number of people and things to their correct places at their correct times. However, during my stint at Juilliard, I have also created three major new ballets for N.Y.T.B. When I’m working on a new project, basically I’m doing that whenever I’m awake when I’m not at Juilliard. Well, that or birding.
What other pursuits are you passionate about?
I’m a devoted birder (317 species on my North American list and 515 on my world list) and a self-styled urban naturalist constantly being wowed by the natural life in the N.Y.C. boroughs—birds, trees, wildflowers, dragonflies, mushrooms, coyotes. I lead a monthly walk series called N.Y.C. Wild! in which we visit extravagant green places in the city, and I co-lead a Sunday morning walk called H.R.P. Wild! on the Hudson River Park promenade of the West Village. WestView newspaper publishes my monthly column about the bird life of the West Village (it’s co-written by my corgi, Millie).
What’s the best vacation you’ve had?
Last spring, during my research trip to Edinburgh, Scotland (I was laying plans for Juilliard Dance performance at the Edinburgh International Festival this past August), I was able to take a few days of vacation off of the Scottish coast. Getting to visit the Isle of May, a nesting refuge for puffins (cuter than should be possible), and Bass Rock, one of the largest northern gannet nesting colonies in the world (more urban crowding than should be possible), was like being in a personal National Geographic special.
What is your favorite thing about New York City?
It’s all about the vastness and eclecticism. You can find/see anything in N.Y.C. if you delve. Constant juxtapositions. History. Newness. An ultimate unknowability that makes it endlessly intriguing. And seeing dolphins and humpbacked whales within sight of the Manhattan skyline.
What are you reading?
Anything S. J. Rozan writes. I’m making my way through all of her books. I think I only have two more to go, which I don’t want to start, so that I won’t be finished with them— until the next one comes out.
What social media do you follow (if any) and why?
Facebook has been invaluable for keeping up to date with dance alumni all over the world. I also use Facebook to post the thousands of photos that I take of N.Y.C. to reach a wide audience and to get immediate attention.