How To Stage a Tony Award Winner’s Choreography

Brenna DiFrancesco and Ty Parmenter rehearsing Christopher Wheeldon’s The American.

It’s a new year andFestival Ballet Providence (FBP) is hard at work preparing for February’s ambitiousDirector’s Choice program. The evening will include three different ballets, one of which- entitled The American– is a company premiere. In fact, this performance will mark the first time a full-length work by world famous Tony Award-winning choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, has ever been performed in Rhode Island.

To stage the ballet, former New York City Ballet dancer Michele Gifford has traveled to Providence several times over the course of FBP’s 40th Anniversary Season.  The American will surely bring FBP to new heights, with stunning choreography by Christopher Wheeldon and music by Antonin Dvorák. This technical piece will challenge the Company’s musicality and teamwork like never before. We sat down with Michele to find out about her ballet career, Christopher Wheeldon’s creation process, and what FBP will bring to this special ballet…

Michelle Gifford. photo by Edwin Watson Photography.

What is your first dance-related memory?

My first memory was as a young girl. I was very upset that my bunny ears wouldn’t stand up straight…we were doing Alice in Wonderland.

You performed with New York City Ballet (NYCB) for twelve years. What was your time with the company like? 

My time at NYCB was amazing, but of course it wasn’t all candy-coated. It was hard work all day, every day (and night!). There was no down time unless you were on a layoff period and even then most of us performed as guest artists in other places.

I was with NYCB at a very special time, because Balanchine dancers [dancers who worked directly with George Balanchine] were still there and dancing a lot. I got to see these people in rehearsals and live onstage- not just in a video. Such an amazing and special time.

Gwynn Wolford and David Dubois rehearsing Christopher Wheeldon’s The American.

You’ve mentioned being cast as the “jumping and turning girl” quite a bit at NYCB. Did you enjoy that type of movement, or did you crave more languid roles? Did you have a favorite role to perform?

I only wanted that shift as I got older. While I was in NYCB I knew that these were my roles and really enjoyed those parts. I also enjoyed when guest choreographers came in and chose me to do different things.

Extending your style challenges another facet of you as a dancer and as a person.

You have been staging works by renowned choreographer Christopher Wheeldon for some time now. When did you two first meet?

I met Chris when he was a dancer with The Royal Ballet and I came in to take company class there.

Beth Mochizuki and Cameron Morgan rehearsing Christopher Wheeldon’s The American.

What is Mr. Wheeldon’s creation process like?

He is very fun in the studio and always wants the best for the dancers as well as the piece. He is also extremely musical.

How would you describe the ballet being performed by FBP, The American

I always feel like the pas de deux is like spun sugar: delicate but light with a sense of breath. It’s really elegant. It also reminds me of a lazy summer day.

I think the music drives the ballet and if you just sit and listen to the music, the choreography just makes sense in so many ways.

This piece is rarely performed by professional companies. What do you think FBP will bring to the piece? 

Olivia Kaczmarcyk, Ty Parmenter, Tegan Rich, and Jordan Nelson rehearsing Christopher Wheeldon’s The American.

I think FBP will bring an excitement to the ballet simply because they do not have the opportunity to perform this kind of work often, so it’s fresh and new. Doing The American will make the FBP dancers better because it’s a challenge and one only continues to grow as an artist and person by doing ballets that challenge them. 


In what ways will The American challenge the dancers of Festival Ballet Providence?

I think that the challenge for the dancers is making the piece a group effort. Everyone has to be 100% involved the whole way through.

FBP Artists rehearsing Christopher Wheeldon’s The American.

What do you hope Providence audiences will take away from seeing this ballet? 
The audience will hopefully walk away not only with fantastic music to hum but also a sense of brightness.

Thank you, Michele! To see The American and the rest of the exciting Director’s Choice evening, click here for tickets.

FBP Company Artists and Artistic Staff with Michele Gifford.


This post was written by Kirsten Evans. The author is in her eighth season as a Company Dancer with Festival Ballet Providence. She is also the Company PR & Communications Assistant, as well as the writer of a personal blog, Setting The Barre.