“Help young people of all ages create art and hopeful peace rather than war and dividing hate.”
-- Michael Bjerknes, April 10, 2008
This is the credo that Michael Bjerknes, dancer, master teacher, producer and dance and arts advocate, left us.
The dance community in the Washington, DC, is much the poorer this week with Michael's loss. Michael died on Monday morning after a long and difficult battle with colon cancer. Founder with his wife Pamela of American Dance Institute in Rockville, Md., he had a rich career as a principal dancer at Joffrey Ballet, a soloist with the Houston Ballet, and a guest artist with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Northern Ballet Theater of England. He served as ballet master at The Washington Ballet under its founder, Mary Day, and taught at the Universal Ballet in Korea. Upon completing his career as a dancer, Michael received a master’s in international management from the University of Maryland's University College and served as a senior consultant for General Electric Company. His most lasting contribution, aside from the impeccable teaching and coaching he has given to thousands of dancers and dance students, is his vision in opening the American Dance Institute in Rockville.
Founded in 2000, the American Dance Institute has built a strong program that offers both recreational and pre-professional ballet classes, a selection of jazz and flamenco, and a full-service Pilates studio. Full disclosure: I took morning modern classes when ADI first opened. Unfortunately that class never took root, but the children’s program has. When my daughter was about six, I enrolled her after a few years of tap and creative movement classes at the local Jewish community center. ADI has become my daughter’s second home, and some weeks, mine too. This year she dances five days a week, volunteers on community service days, and does her homework in the well-appointed library on the premises. Michael and Pam have built more than a just a dance studio, they have created a community for those who love dance and the arts. The facility is gorgeous, spacious, high-ceilinged, impeccably deigned with its distinctive periwinkle walls and open lobby area that serves as a gallery. As a ballet mom, it’s a pleasure to hang out, catch up on work, reading or just watch the two or three classes in session.
I often observed Michael through the studio windows -– another great design element of the space –- teaching the older girls. He was a demanding taskmaster and he expected nothing short of excellence. But the classes were also small enough that he knew all his girls, knew what they could do and knew when they could do better. He expected the most from them and I think they respected him for that. I was pleased, as well, that he emphasized the importance of academics. I remember him asking my daughter about her grades last year and noting to my daughter that they were good enough for her to go to the specialized county magnet programs when she was ready for high school. I don’t think that idea ever occurred to her before he said it, but he planted a seed by looking her in the eyes and saying, “I expect all our girls to do well in school.” And he meant it. I liked, too, how he instilled a demeanor of respect and seriousness of intent in even the youngest children. I noticed especially the little girls who would both giggle and cower in awe when he came into the studio to observe. And I appreciated how he disciplined rambunctious kids in the lobby, even (especially) in front of their parents. It showed that he expected them honor this special place with the respect it deserves by maintaining an appropriate level of decorum. The kids would get it, I think, more so than their parents.
Michael was funny, sometimes wickedly so, but not when it came to technique or performance. My daughter would come home breathless and tell me how challenging and demanding his classes and rehearsals were. And I can attest to that. I took just one adult ballet class from him, barely got through it and he suggested, kindly but unmistakably, that I shouldn’t come back to his class. The petite allegro combinations were lightening quick, the grand allegro, a sweeping combination of weight changes, tours en l’air and grande jetes, and the adagio was a lovely … and long … meditation of promenades, developes, balances and a death-defying penche. It was all so beautiful … and so much more than my modern-trained, 40-something body could accomplish.
But, everything was beautiful at the ballet and Michael knew ballet’s beauty firsthand. He lived a remarkable life. And it was his life’s mission to give the rest of us, mortals with two left feet, a taste of that beauty. His teaching demonstrated the sensitivity, the musicality, the innate feeling and rigor that encapsulate the grace and beauty of ballet.
Michael, too, had an incredible eye and was far more critical than any critic I’ve met. I would recap an opening of some major company at the Kennedy Center with him and he would remark, “Well, I thought the corps was sloppy” or “But the pas de deux was all wrong. The choreography didn’t come from Petipa” or “They really lacked musicality and that’s not dancing.” I think he was so critical because he held such high standards. He knew what was attainable, what was possible, and he knew what dancers needed to do to get to that exalted moment when music and dance, body and soul, mingle and conspire to reach perfection.
I’m sad that I didn’t have more opportunities to learn from him and to listen to him speak about dance, to watch him coach young dancers and to see him pass on his wisdom. I am most appreciative for the vision and foresight he had in building this wonderful community with his wife and partner, Pam, into a top-notch teaching and performance center. Michael spoke to me earlier this year about his goals, among them, introducing young dancers to the demands of the professional dance world through master classes and performances with troupes like ABT II, Ailey II and Taylor 2. What a wonderful opportunity for young ballet students, and their parents, to come to see these groups perform in the intimate studio-theater setting. He wanted to show his students what they could strive for. Michael also opened the theater up to a number of locally based contemporary choreographers; the late Ed Tyler, Helanius Wilkins/Edgeworks Dance Theater, Meisha Bosma and BosmaDance, Adrienne Clancy and ClancyWorks, Rudolf Kharatian’s Arka Ballet, Erika Schonemann’s and Roxann Morgan Rowley’s Next Reflex, are among the recent beneficiaries of the ADI Arts Incubator program, which offers rehearsal and performance space to selected companies. Beyond presenting, Michael said that he would love to start a chamber-sized repertory company that would offer budding professional dancers and choreographers an outlet for contemporary and classical work. I’m so sorry that he didn’t see this dream fulfilled, but I am confident that the seeds he planted in training, presenting and producing will continue to bear fruit for years and years to come.
This is a wonderful interview that DanceView colleague Alexandra Tomalonis conducted with Michael shortly after the founding of ADI. Reading it again I can still hear his voice, thoughtful, opinionated and humane.
Michael Bjerknes will be deeply missed by many for he touched many, many lives in a myriad of ways.
-- Lisa Traiger