Mikelle Bruzina in Swan Lake. Photo by Dave Howard.

Interview by Scott Dowd.
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The last time I interviewed Mikelle Bruzina for Audience was in 1998. She was a newly minted soloist with the Louisville Ballet, and she had just learned she would dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Alun Jones’s production of The Nutcracker. Jump ahead to last month. I’m sitting in a coffee shop in the Highlands with choreographer Mikelle Bruzina – Louisville Ballet’s ballet mistress – recently married to former company member Tom Fillebrown and expecting her first child this month. Much has changed, but the Lexington native still radiates with a dancer’s energy.

SD:  How long have you been with the Louisville Ballet?

MB:  My first year with the company was 1995. I graduated from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 1990 and danced a couple of years with the Lexington Ballet before moving to Baltimore as a freelance dancer. Somewhere in there I lived and studied for a year in Japan.

SD:  How did you come to Louisville?

MB:  I came here from Baltimore. I had a friend who was driving down to audition and he dragged me along. I got the job and I’ve been here ever since.

SD:  Are you Canadian?

MB:  I have dual citizenship. My mother is Japanese-Canadian.

SD:  Did you grow up there?

MB:  No, I actually grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. My parents moved there shortly before I was born. My mother’s parents still lived in Winnipeg, which is where they had been relocated after the war.
I was fortunate that I got to spend four years living with them while I went to high school and the Academy.

SD:  Are you fluent in Japanese?

MB:  I am. My Mom spoke to us in Japanese when we were little. My father is fluent in French, so we grew up kind of internationally.

SD:  When you came to Louisville Ballet, Alun Jones and Helen Starr had been running the company for more than twenty years. What was the company like then compared with now?

MB:  It’s hard to compare because the people have changed so much. The thing that hasn’t changed is the feeling of family Alun and Helen instilled. That is something I respect in Bruce Simpson’s leadership. As much as he has moved the company forward in other directions, that companionship, support and healthy competitiveness is still there.

SD:  One of the changes Bruce has made is the flattening of the company structure. There are no longer Principal Dancers, Soloists and Corps de Ballet.

MB:  That happened just in the last couple of years. It was something he entertained from the beginning, but he didn’t want to disrupt things too much during the transition. But in changing Louisville Ballet to an ensemble company, it allows for a great deal of artistic freedom. With Principal Dancers, you, as a choreographer or director, are limited to those particular dancers in key roles. With an ensemble company, there is a pool of dancers from whom to select – ideally, without prejudice or attention to considerations unrelated to the creation of art. Currently, we have trainees who are dancing principal roles and this year, for the first time in a very long time, we had principal dancers in the corps de ballet for The Brown-Forman Nutcracker.

SD:  How has this been received by the dancers?

MB:  Of course, there are some people who are a little bit resistant. But, on the whole, I think it has worked out very nicely.

SD:  We first spoke as you were preparing to dance the Sugar Plum Fairy. Tell me about some of the roles you have danced and the ones that meant the most to you.

MB:  You know, so many people ask me what my favorite ballet is, and I think it’s just my personality to be very much in the moment. If you asked me what my favorite movie is, I would have the same challenge. Even if I’ve seen a movie a dozen times, it’s a new experience each time. It’s the same with each role I’ve danced – I find fresh, new life each time. Part of that comes from the wonderful people I have worked with each time –

dancers, choreographers and stagers who helped me find new facets of the role. That said, there are a couple that do stand out in my mind. One of those comes from my first season with Louisville Ballet. We did a ballet called Little Improvisations by Antony Tudor. Donald Mahler and the late Sally Wilson were the stagers, and I was given the opportunity to dance a pas de deux with David Goud. It was just the two of us on stage with a grand piano in the corner providing the music. It’s very sweet and playful and goes through a gamut of characters within the one dance. Ironically, the other role that stands out for me is also by Antony Tudor – Lilac Garden.

SD:  What was special about Lilac Garden?

MB:  I suppose the best way I can get at it is to say that I love Audrey Hepburn in the movie Roman Holiday. The bittersweet goodbye between her and Gregory Peck at the end inspired the same emotions in me as I danced that role. Another pivotal role for me came right after Bruce’s arrival.

SD:  What was that?

MB:  Choo-San Goh’s In the Glow of the Night is technically challenging, but it also turned out to be one of those roles in which I could emotionally invest myself. The third movement pas de deux stands out in mind particularly. He was trying to capture the emotions of the midnight sky and its parallel to the end-of-life cycle through dance and did it exceedingly well.

SD:  Louisville Ballet is preparing for the production of Romeo & Juliet in March. Did you ever dance the role of Juliet?

MB:  Not on stage. I have understudied it here in Louisville under Alun and Helen in the production we’re getting ready to do. I also stood in for rehearsals in a production in Boca Raton, Florida.

SD:  Tell me about the role. Is it technically difficult? Or is the challenge more about acting?

MB:  Ballet in itself is technically difficult. But compared with something like Swan Lake, you’re not as naked out there. What’s probably more challenging is the pas de deux work and then, certainly, it is an emotional challenge. Prokofiev’s score is one that can bring you to tears by itself. The music perfectly tells the story and it
is difficult not to get overly involved. The challenge becomes to maintain the dance in the midst of this emotional maelstrom.

SD:  One of the moments I wonder about as a non-dancer is the pas de deux at the end when Juliet is supposedly dead. She has to appear to be a lifeless dead weight. How difficult is it to achieve that illusion?

MB:  You have to hold yourself so that you’re not impossible dead weight. Not that I’ve ever carried a dead person, but it is very difficult to carry somebody as dead weight. I did a role – again an Antony Tudor ballet, Echoing of Trumpets – in which I was a wife whose husband had died and I had to drag his body around the stage! Even though he weighed more than me, there is a way you can hold yourself to aid your partner. As Juliet, you hold your core so that your partner has something solid to hold but your limbs are loose. So you’re controlling the trunk and letting everything else go.

SD:  Was it difficult for you to make the decision to stop dancing?

MB:  Interestingly enough, it wasn’t that difficult. I had been with the company fifteen years, working my way up through the ranks. I had been given multiple opportunities and I am grateful for each one. I guess there is a point in everybody’s career when you start to look ahead and develop an exit strategy.

SD:  Yes, but for most of us it doesn’t happen in our thirties!

MB:  That is the dancer’s lot. I was fortunate enough to make that decision, rather than having it made for me by an injury, which is a daily risk for a dancer. Part of my decision was based on timing. Helen Starr had just stepped down as ballet mistress and we went a season without filling the position. Her absence really made me appreciate the importance of having a female teacher and coach in the company. I had been teaching in the ballet school for a really long time and I had been coaching for many years in various schools and at smaller companies.

SD:  Do you like to teach?

MB:  Teaching is something I’ve always enjoyed. I got into education at a young age not realizing how much I would like it. I had even contemplated opening my own school or perhaps teaching full-time somewhere else. With the position of ballet mistress being open here, I gave it a lot of thought and decided I might fill the bill. Once I decided I was willing to take on the responsibility, I approached Bruce, who was very supportive. We took a year, which ended up being my last season, to test the waters.

SD:  Were there concerns in taking the position?

MB:  Bruce and I kept this experiment to ourselves so we could watch for any change in the dynamics of the organization. As it turned out, we were both satisfied that this would be a good fit. So at the end of the 2010 season, the decision was made and I have been in the position for three years already…hard to believe!

SD:  What are your responsibilities as ballet mistress?

MB:  The responsibilities differ from company to company, but here I share with Uwe Kern [Senior Ballet Master] and Bruce the responsibility of teaching class. I am also in charge of all the scheduling for the company, which is a good chunk of my time.

SD:  What kinds of things does that entail?

MB:  For the dancers, I plan the rehearsal schedule, costume fittings and media outings, etc. I also coordinate the theatre schedule with the production staff and talk with everyone else on staff to be sure the day runs smoothly for the company. Then, of course, I run rehearsals and coach dancers. Uwe and I are basically Bruce’s ambassadors and are responsible for carrying out his vision.

SD:  How do the responsibilities of being a ballet mistress compare to those of a dancer?

MB:  As a dancer, you can take for granted that even though we have a six-hour work day, you’re not always here six hours at a block. As ballet mistress, I am here well beyond my scheduled time on a regular basis. As a dancer, your responsibility is really for yourself. Bruce says, “Dancing is a selfish art.” I never really understood what he was talking about. But as a dancer, you do focus a lot of energy on maintaining your physical self, your technique, memorizing the choreography, getting yourself where you need to be on time. It’s really very self-involved. Now that I’m on the other side, I’m not just responsible for me. I’m responsible for forty dancers and their coordination with various members of the staff. It has broadened my perception.

SD:  Are you keeping up with your choreography?

MB:  A little. Last year I staged a piece for our Studio Connections program in the Main Street studios, and last season I had a piece that premiered in the Brown Theatre as part of the 60th Anniversary celebration. That was a brand new collaborative piece with composer Ben Sollee. Choreography has never been my main focus, but it is a serious hobby.

SD:  Most hobbyists don’t have the opportunity to work with someone on the level of Ben Sollee.

MB:  It has been a lot of fun, and I appreciate Bruce giving me the opportunity to choreograph occasionally.

SD:  How long did you work on this piece?

MB:  It turned out to be a three-year project. It was made possible through a choreography award I received from the Choo-San Goh Foundation.

SD:  Is it odd working on Romeo & Juliet now from “the other side”?

MB:  You know, it is different. I’ve been involved with this production three or four times in the past. This is Alun Jones’s choreography, and it is special for me.

SD:  Can you give me some inside perspective on Alun as a choreographer?

MB:  Alun and Helen have a perfect partnership. He has the vision; she interprets it and puts it into steps we can understand.

SD:  Will there be new costumes for this production?

MB:  They are basically the same costumes, though we have one of the best costume shops in American ballet and Dan Fedie is constantly restoring pieces so that they always look their best. Part of the glory of Alun’s productions is the costumes and sets. They are always breathtaking.

SD:  One of the things well-known in the industry is that Alun is a great costume designer. Will Alun and Helen be involved with this production?

MB:  Both will be there, and I have been coordinating with Helen already. Not only will we use the whole company, we will be using people from the community as extras. We’ll also see some former company members’ faces back on stage.

SD:  This production is March 1 and 2, right after the birth of your baby. How will you handle the scheduling there?

MB:  It’s fortunate that at that particular time Alun and Helen will be here, so I hope my absence will have less impact.

SD:  What are your future plans?

MB:  In my personal life, I’m recently married, having a child, buying a house –

that’s been all-consuming. I would like to think I’ll be with the Louisville Ballet for a long time. But the future of the arts being what it is, who can tell? Louisville is very lucky to have its own ballet company. All I can do is my best work and encourage everyone to support us!

Louisville Ballet’s production of Romeo & Juliet will be performed March 1 and 2 on the Whitney Hall stage at The Kentucky Center for the Arts. Tickets are available at kentuckycenter.org and by calling 502.584.7777.