Iowa City native Miriam Miller returning home with Hancher ballet performance

Paul Kolnik

Iowa City native Miriam Miller dances the role of Titania, queen of the fairies, in George Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with the New York City Ballet in 2015. Cameron Dieck portrays donkey-headed Bottom. Miller is returning to her hometown Tuesday and Wednesday to dance two works with New York City Ballet MOVES at Hancher Auditorium.
Paul Kolnik Iowa City native Miriam Miller dances the role of Titania, queen of the fairies, in George Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with the New York City Ballet in 2015. Cameron Dieck portrays donkey-headed Bottom. Miller is returning to her hometown Tuesday and Wednesday to dance two works with New York City Ballet MOVES at Hancher Auditorium.

New York City Ballet is on the move to Hancher for the first time, keeping an Iowa City native on her toes.

Miriam Miller, 20, was just 4 when she danced on the former Hancher stage, but she doesn’t remember that performance. This time, she’s stepping into “After the Rain,” a pas de deux choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, who mounted the Joffrey Ballet’s new “Nutcracker” at Hancher Auditorium last December. She also will be among the three couples dancing “La Stravaganza,” with music by Vivaldi and others, set by French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj.

Both ballets are among five works being presented Tuesday and Wednesday (Oct. 24 and 25) when the New York City Ballet MOVES touring ensemble comes to town. It will be the first Hancher appearance by New York City Ballet, one of the world’s top ballet companies, established in 1948 by George Balanchine and arts aficionado Lincoln Kirstein.

SPOTLIGHT

With Iowa City on the touring roster, Peter Martins, the company’s ballet master-in-chief, wanted to spotlight Miller for her homecoming. Jean-Pierre Frohlich, artistic administrator for MOVES, suggested Wheeldon’s “After the Rain,” saying Miller’s long lines and physicality would be well-suited to that piece. Audiences will see another side of her artistry in “La Stravaganza,” he said. “It’s totally opposite from ‘After the Rain,’ in regards to movement quality and dynamics.”

They will see in her “a very pure and honest dancer,” Frohlich said. “Physically, she is quite beautiful. She has a sense of inner presence that you gravitate to.”

The program also features ballets set to the music of Chopin, Vivaldi, Ravel, Philip Glass and others, with choreography by Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Justin Peck, soloist and resident choreographer at New York City Ballet.

ENSEMBLE

The touring ensemble includes nearly 20 dancers, one violinist and two pianists. “La Stravaganza” will be performed to recorded music, since that’s what the choreographer wanted, and how the piece premiered. But the company uses live music as much as possible.

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“That’s what we believe in,” Frohlich said. “Live music adds to the experience of a live performance.”

The MOVES roster changes with each tour, depending on the repertoire and the dancers who are available during the main company’s scheduled breaks. Taking a smaller ensemble on the road is a practical move, too, since it’s less expensive for the company and the presenters like Hancher.

“That was one reason why Peter Martins decided to start this kind of touring company,” Frohlich said, “because it does get the New York City Ballet name out there, and also gets to people in certain areas of the country who don’t have the opportunity to go to New York or to see the New York City Ballet. It’s a great way of getting ourselves out there.”

COMING HOME

Even though Miller’s parents moved to North Carolina last year, she has a lot of relatives in Iowa, and is excited they’ll have the chance to see her dance.

“It’s really special to be able to perform for them and to give them the opportunity to see not only me, but people from my company, as well,” she said. “Because New York City Ballet is such a great company, it’s really special for people who might not have the means to be able to go out, or don’t have the time to go (to New York) and see us.

She’s also happy to bring the experience to budding ballet dancers and the dancers she knew growing up.

“I didn’t really know what New York City Ballet was when I was still living at home,” she said. “I didn’t know the extent of the company. I didn’t know the ballet world, and so it’s nice to give that opportunity for those other aspiring dancers who might be wanting to follow this career. It’s nice for them to be able to relate with one of the dancers, as well, and see that it’s possible, and for them to feel like, ‘Yes, maybe I can do this.’ I’m glad that I can provide that for them and give them that sort of hope.

“I know it’s scary and you might not want to move away from home, or you might not think that you’d be able to be in a company, but seeing somebody else that was in your shoes or came from where you are, helps.”

DANCE ODYSSEY

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Miller’s dance odyssey began at age 3 when her mother enrolled her in classes. She explored tap, jazz and ballet in her youth, and as she matured, decided to stick with ballet. She attended the University of Iowa Dance Forum, then in 2006, began training with Sarah Barragan at City Ballet of Iowa.

“I was pretty young,” Miller said. “It’s crazy to think I’ve been dancing for 17 years of my life. That’s what so nice about this job — it doesn’t feel like a job to me, because I’m just doing something that I’ve been doing for my entire life, and that I love to do, and that I feel a passion for. I have been so incredibly fortunate to be able to continue dancing and have it be my career. It’s pretty cool.”

The turning point came for her at age 13, when she attended the Chautauqua Institution’s six-week summer course in a quaint setting in southwestern New York.

“That was my first summer away from home. It opened my eyes to the ballet world and what that consisted of,” she said. “I got to meet other dancers that were at my same level and had the same mind-set as me, and they wanted to do the same things that I wanted to do. We were all dancing, and I was meeting people who danced with New York City Ballet. ... That was when I realized this could be something.”

The following year, she went to the School of the American Ballet at Lincoln Center, which feeds into the New York City Ballet. That’s when she became serious about a dance career.

“I figured out this is where I want to be and this is what want to do,” she said. “Seeing (New York City Ballet dancers) onstage was incredible, because I had never seen them before, and I had never seen that level of artistry, and that level of talent and athleticism. To see that at age 14 was just so inspiring.”

She was asked to stay year-round, so after her freshman year at Iowa City West High School, she moved to New York to attend the Professional Children’s School and train at the School of American Ballet, founded by Balanchine and Kirstein.

The two schools were just five blocks apart, making it easy for her to go back and forth between high school and dance classes. She’s still juggling dance and school, taking classes at Fordham University, where she’s beginning to explore sociology and psychology studies, realizing a dance career “won’t last forever.”

CAREER PATH

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Her career path, however, has been on the rise since receiving an apprenticeship at New York City Ballet in January 2015, during her senior year of high school. Four months later, she danced the role of Titania, queen of the fairies, in Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“It was pretty surreal,” she said. New York Times critic Gia Kourlas declared: “With her swanlike neck, long arms and velvety port de bras, she is as lovely as they come, but what was even more surprising in such a major debut was her ease. She showed no strain, only spontaneity.”

During her apprenticeship, Miller also has had featured roles in Balanchine’s “Harlequinade” and Martins’ “Swan Lake.” She joined the company as a member of the corps de ballet in January 2016, and has continued to excel, winning the 2017 Princess Grace Award, which honors emerging artists in theater, dance and film. She likens the financial award to a scholarship, which will go to New York City Ballet to help fund her salary and dancing.

“It’s a big award, and I was very surprised,” she said. She’ll miss the awards gala in Los Angeles, however, since it falls during her stay in Iowa City.

She’s not disappointed. She’ll be doing what she loves, with the company she loves.

“I feel lucky to be part of this company,” she said, “and anything I get to dance is special to me.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

IF YOU GO

l What: New York City Ballet MOVES

l Where: Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City

l When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday (Oct. 24 and 25)

l Tickets: $20 to $80, Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu

l Program: “In the Night,” music by Frederic Chopin, choreography by Jerome Robbins; “La Stravaganza,” music by Antonio Vivaldi, Evelyn Ficarra, Robert Normandeau, Serge Morand and Ake Parmerud, choreography by Angelin Preljocaj, with Iowa City native Miriam Miller in the ensemble; “Sonatine,” music by Maurice Ravel, choreography by George Balanchine; “After the Rain” pas de deux, with Miriam Miller, music by Arvo Part, choreography by Christopher Wheeldon; “In Creases,” music by Philip Glass, choreography by Justin Peck

l Artist’s website: Nycballet.com

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