Dancers’ Workshop Brings Back That Holiday Magic

Michaela Ellingson of Dancers' Workshop reflects on being a lifelong performer and the importance of self-discovery.
Junior Repertory Company Director Michaela Ellingson (right) started off in Dancers' Workshop as a three-year-old. Now, she instills the importance of empowerment through performance as a staffer. (Courtesy of David Stubbs)

by | Dec 17, 2021 | Performing Arts

The Dancers’ Workshop of Jackson Hole has a longstanding wintertime tradition of fun performances for the entire family. This year, they presented a unique version of the classic fairy tale Cinderella, featuring young dancers from the junior repertory company in the school at Dancers’ Workshop.

In advance of the opening night of “If The Shoe Fits,” Junior Repertory Company Director Michela Ellingson joined us in the KHOL studios.

Listen above for more and check out a transcript of the interview below. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

KnewJack: So first off, the [Jackson Hole] News&Guide recently referred to you as a lifelong winter production devotee. When did you first get involved and how did that evolve into your current role as junior repertory company director?

Michaela Ellingson: Yes. So, my story is pretty unique. I was actually a student at Dancer’s Workshop. I began dancing there as a three-year-old. So I am lifelong, committed to DW. But I’ve been in winter production since I was a kid. I danced my way up through the whole program. We did Cinderella, actually, when I was in high school, and I played the role of the fairy godmother. So, it’s been a really fun thing for me to move home post-college and live in other places and to get involved with Dancers Workshop again as a staff member and especially with winter production, I just have so many fond memories as a student, you know, being a small little mouse being, you know, Mr. Thomas and the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, up to different roles as a high school student. And as the junior repertory company director, it’s been really awesome to help recreate these stories and kind of turn them around and twist them. For me, it’s about remembering how magical it was as a kid and then trying to infuse that joy into the production as a staff member.

KnewJack: So, what is it about the story of Cinderella that attracted the Dancers’ Workshop to want to reinterpret it in their own vision?

Ellingson: So, we have about six different shows that we kind of rotate through Cinderella being one of them, and every time we revisit a show, we sit down and we say, ‘Okay, what is the story? Why are we doing this? What is important to us in terms of both characters, narrative, what is happening in our world today? And also who are the kids that are going to play these roles?’ Because we really fit the show to the current students. We were just drawn to this idea that you know, these princess stories don’t always have to end the same way. And right now, I’m just really interested in empowering young women to be themselves and for them to really identify with what they want, what they believe. As someone who works with a lot of women and we really want to bring more boys into our program as well. But I just feel it’s really important in all the stories we tell that there’s a choice, there’s an option, there’s freedom, there’s self-realization and empowerment. And so for Cinderella, it’s a fun story that we were able to kind of say, okay, maybe she’s not just the victim, but maybe she ends up actually finding her own path through this story.

KnewJack: So what changes did you make to help modernize Cinderella?

Ellingson: Yeah, we as a staff kind of just took each character and tried to reinvent them a little bit. I think for us, Prince Charming is not that charming, as the newspaper also said. He’s actually a little bit egocentric, and for us, that’s just kind of understanding that people can be multifaceted. And a reason why maybe Cinderella isn’t super interested in him is his personality isn’t for her. And the other things like the fairy godmother has an assistant and also an intern. So, just kind of making these little comments on, you know, society today and how we engage with each other, how we work with each other. And we also change some of the music. So there’s some, like more upbeat or modern music. And yeah, it’s about kind of taking the story, flipping it, taking some characters, navigating them all. The royalty is quite absurd, which I think is really fun. Yeah, just making it our own and allowing the kids to really make it their own. Every kid, we choreograph the show for them. So we start rehearsals by saying, What are you interested in? What do you think this character should be? And I think that organically just turns the show into a more modern version because the future is making it.

KnewJack: Can you touch on that royalty part? The royalty is an interesting take on the original story.

Ellingson: I think we often look at royalty as like the perfect or the ideal. And for us, we just wanted to play with this idea that the royalty or this like kind of prince and queen, maybe that’s not the. I don’t, I don’t know, hoity-toity. Like, maybe we don’t want to be that. And maybe Cinderella doesn’t want to be that. Maybe royalty isn’t so stuffy, but maybe they’re a little bit weird, but maybe they’re weird in a way that, like, maybe we don’t want to hang out with them. So it’s an interesting dialog we have as a staff. But I don’t think royalty should always be so perfect or have to be perfect. And again, maybe that’s not ideal. Maybe we don’t want to be royal.

KnewJack: So, finally, you are not only the junior repertory company director and co-choreographer but also in the production as one of Cinderella’s stepsisters. How does your role as a performer inform your role as an educator and vice versa?

Ellingson: I would say my first love with dance was performing and dancing, and I think when I think deep down like my artistry and my desire to perform fuels, my passion for teaching, and it’s been a really fun process this year, being on stage as an ugly stepsister because I get to witness in real-time the students interacting with me, around me and in the past, I’m always in the shadows in some sort of cameo role, but again, we want to focus it on our students. So to be an ugly step-sister this year just has reminded me how fun it is to perform. I think by bringing my own joy onto the stage, I’m hopefully influencing the fellow dancers to really cherish these moments. And COVID has reminded us how special and important the performing arts are and missing some of those opportunities in the last couple of years. I feel hungry to be on stage even in this silly, ridiculous role, and I’m just hoping to infuse the fellow dancers and cast members that these opportunities are precious. And I think Dancers Workshop does a beautiful job with sets and props and costumes. It’s a really professional-level show. I mean, I put my silly costume on. I get on stage and I’m like, ready to go. And I just think leading by example is the most important thing I can do, both on stage and off stage.

KnewJack: Before we hopped on live, we were chatting about just your perspective, as now the company director looking at your three-year-old self and how that became full circle for you. And you had some really good comments or insight on, you know, teaching the kids that it’s more than just following direction. It’s like taking ownership of the role and you know what they want to see with the characters. So can you expand on that for us?

Ellingson: It’s interesting. When I was a student here, I took a lot of it for granted. You know, the process and the performance and coming back and being a director, you understand all the work that goes into it behind the scenes. And I think the biggest thing that I want students to acknowledge is that one, what an amazing opportunity, but to how exciting it is to have the space, the time and the process to dive into yourself. And what that is, is character development. What you’re interested in stylistic choices? Yeah, it’s again, I think it really goes back to curiosity and passion. And for me, it’s been really humbling to go from being a student to now on staff to acknowledge kind of the full picture of what it takes to put on a show like this. But then I always return to, you know, those moments of stress and chaos, like, why are we doing this? It is just about that sense of feeling alive and creative and empowered inside of performance. So, yeah, I think it’s all about the community and how we support each other and about how each individual can really grow through the process of the show.

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About Jack Catlin

Jack is KHOL's music director. He says all music is in some way connected no matter the style and his mission is to provide listeners with a unique and memorable experience each time they tune in to KHOL or see him DJ live.

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