Liquid Steel

As A Principal Dancer With American Ballet Theatre, Maryland Native Michele Wiles Stays On Her Toes With Musicality, Athletic Prowess And An Iron Will


THE SUNLIGHT POURING THROUGH THE LONG rectangular windows of an American Ballet Theatre rehearsal hall is cool, thick and faintly golden, like cream. A pianist taps out the music of French composer Leo Delibes on the beat-up black instrument in the corner of the cavernous Studio No. 5.

Dancer Michele Wiles hops up and down delicately on one pointe-shoed foot. The other leg is extended straight behind her, and her arms arc gracefully. Each soft lift and landing is so precise, Wiles almost seems to be digging a small hole in the ground, about the right diameter for planting a tulip bulb.

All she has to do is to straighten her torso, bring her tailwind leg to the front and crook her knee, raise her arms matador-style and smile prettily. While continuing to hop on the very tips of the toes of one foot. Exactly 20 times. To the beat of the music. On the same spot. As lightly as possible.

Then she just has to repeat the entire maneuver -- twice -- without visibly sweating or breathing hard or, God forbid, losing her balance.

Just one more obstacle on the pothole-strewn road to perfection.

Today, Wiles dances a lead role for the first time in more than four months when she performs with ABT in Costa Mesa, Calif. She will perform the title role in Sylvia, Sir Frederick Ashton's demanding three-act ballet about a nymph who promises to renounce love, and then becomes enamored of a mortal. It's a role seemingly tailor-made for the elusive, mischievous Wiles.

Even better, today is the Pasadena, Md., native's 26th birthday.

Better still, Sylvia is that rarest of story ballets, one with a happy ending.

It's about time.

In December, Wiles met with some bad luck that was particularly inopportune. She was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her back -- "in the facet joint of vertebrae L5," she says, with customary specificity -- and immediately had to stop dancing.

Canceled were her appearances in several performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington in December and January, the first time she was to have danced close to home since being promoted to principal dancer -- the highest level -- with ABT on July 4, 2005. The New York-based ensemble is considered by many to be the premier ballet company in the U.S., and is on any list of the world's top troupes.

Also canceled was a Christmastime trip to Japan, where she was to perform with three other dancers.

Wiles says that the stress fracture was the most serious setback she has experienced to date. "It was the first big injury that required me to stop dancing for a long time," she says.

A four-month hiatus was especially aggravating because the career of a ballerina is so short. Wiles began dancing professionally at age 17, and many ballerinas hang up their toe shoes in their late 30s or early 40s, once they are past their primes.

Wiles' medical leave from ABT was extended from January to March, and then to mid-April. But Wiles never admitted the faintest doubt that she would heal. She was determined to power her way back to health with the same hard work and iron will that she has exhibited all her life.

"I never thought, for even one moment, that I wouldn't recover," she says. "I know my body and what it is capable of. I needed rest, and that's it. At least 10 percent of dancers have this type of injury. Most of them come back with a full recovery. The doctors were very confident, and that helped."

Poised to be a force

Wiles embarked on a regimen as rigorous as the one she typically keeps in the studio. For about three hours a day, she swam laps and exercised. When she was through working out, she went to a round of appointments. To the physical therapist. And to the chiropractor. And for ultrasounds, which promote healing. And to the masseuse.

In late April, she began rehearsing again. Except for some occasional tightness, she has been pain-free.

Kevin McKenzie, the Ballet Theatre's artistic director, thinks Wiles has the potential to become one of the leading ballerinas of her generation, a household name as familiar to star-struck young girls as former ABT star Gelsey Kirkland or Natalia Makarova, the prima ballerina whose prowess in the mid-20th century resulted in the Western mania for Russian dancers.

McKenzie sees stylistic similarities between Wiles and another famous dancer known in the 1960s and 1970s as the quintessential American ballerina because of her athleticism and musicality.

"I think Michele is going to become a force in the dance world in the way that Cynthia Gregory was," McKenzie says. "She has the technique, she has the smarts, and she does her homework. She has a very strong point-of-view, and the statement she potentially is going to make is astounding."

When Wiles was growing up, pictures of Kirkland plastered the walls of her bedroom. So when the former prima ballerina taught a rare class at ABT in late November, Wiles wasn't about to miss it.

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