If a student at Barriskill Dance Theatre School ever breaks a leg on Broadway, literally, they might find comfort knowing they were following in the footsteps of their school’s co-founder.
“(Ballet) is an early career, and it’s short,” Michael Barriskill said. “You have to commit. I think a lot of that is personal passion.”
Barriskill, 49 now works mostly as a massage therapist out of his home just a few miles from the Durham dance studio. Ask him about performing in “Cats,” the Broadway blockbuster of its day, or how he ignored a leg injury until the pain reared itself onstage, and he’ll tell you he wasn’t going to let anything stop him.
“I grew up knowing what I wanted,” he said.
Barriskill was trained by a “completely product-oriented school,” said Elliot Pack, who co-founded the dance studio with Barrington and is its executive director.
“He grew up with the idea that perfection is possible and that you need to see it all the time.”
Next to Nureyev
By age 10, Barriskill had already been dancing for half his life.
The Virginia Beach native was good enough at ballet to be selected to perform alongside Rudolph Nureyev, the legendary dancer from Soviet Russia. The experience confirmed ballet could be his career.
“I didn’t attend prom, movies with friends on Friday night, never saw a football game in my town,” Barriskill said. “It was my decision. My parents were supportive, but never pushy.”
As a teenager, Barriskill craved a spot with the New York City Ballet. For five summers he trained in Manhattan with what he described as the company’s “feeder team.”
He didn’t make the cut, but soon after came a call from the Houston ballet. At 17, Barriskill accepted a full-time position in Houston, completing his junior and senior year of high school via correspondence school. He received his high school diploma in the mail.
The young dancers had devoted their whole lives to being in a company, Barriskill said, “and you didn’t know how to cook, or … just fix the drain.”
“You almost have to be that disciplined to be that focused.”
In 1989, Barriskill traveled to New York to audition for a Broadway show that was replacing its cast. The show was “Cats,” the dance-heavy, record-setting spectacle that had reigned supreme over Broadway throughout the decade.
About 150 hopefuls showed up, each assigned a number.
By late afternoon, only Barriskill and two other dancers remained. He performed the required moves and was offered a featured role: the “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees.”
“I remember I ran out onto Seventh Avenue and I screamed to strangers, ‘Oh, my God! I’m gonna be on Broadway!’”
The leap from seasonal programming with a ballet company to the weekly repetition of a Broadway show brought the 20-year-old dancer new challenges.
“It was so different for my body to do the same thing eight times a week,” Bariskill said. “I couldn’t talk a lot, couldn’t walk … crosstown.”
And then there were the hours in front of the dressing-room mirror.
“You do your own makeup,” Barriskill said. “It was a meditation, and a transformation. I think to me that was the most special part as to why the show was a hit – the transformation that was so believable.”
So believable that Barriskill was able to push out of his mind a nagging pain that had developed in his left shin.
“In eight years, I was the seventh Mr. Mistoffelees,” Barriskill said. “You can be replaced.”
One evening, at the end of his solo in the second act, Barriskill had to limp offstage because of the pain. He was taken to a hospital emergency room and found to have a fracture.
“The orthopedist came in with the x-rays,” Barriskill said, “and he said to me, ‘Have you ever thought of college?’
“That was my biggest disillusionment in (dance) – that I never felt prepared to do anything else. It was the catalyst to say to myself that I’m going to have other skills to fall back on,” Barriskill said.
I remember I ran out onto Seventh Avenue and I screamed to strangers, ‘Oh, my God! I’m gonna be on Broadway!
While his leg healed, Barriskill enrolled at Indiana University, where he majored in ballet and minored in business. He would go on to earn a Master’s of Fine Arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. But his nights with “Cats” were not over.
“After I graduated, ‘Cats’ called me and asked, ‘Would you like to go on the national tour?’”
This time, Barriskill was cast in a less physically demanding role, and was traveling to a new city every week.He used the tour to help pay off his student loans and plan his next move.
“I didn’t accept rejection very well, so I realized I wasn’t going to be happy … going from audition to audition.” Barriskill said.
‘What I knew’
In 2006, Barriskill was working in Durham as a manager at Nordstrom when Pack met him at a concert and later asked if he’d ever thought about opening a dance studio. Barriskill jumped at the opportunity.
“I sort of wanted to create a conservatory … because that’s what I knew,” he said. “Whereas (Pack) was coming from teaching and learning as pure joy. I had to learn that.”
The Barriskill Dance Theatre School celebrated its 10th anniversary in Durham last September, and Barriskill remains involved as a visiting teacher and choreographer.
The school’s website brings up a staff with extensive credentials, which includes artistic director Mari O’Donnell.
“Hard work, time-management … they’re going to get everything done to be here,” O’Donnell said and pointed to a boy seated nearby who was navigating pages of homework.
Passion is a dancer’s most important asset, Barriskill said.
“Somebody said, ‘You don’t dance because you want to, you dance because you have to.’ I would never have gotten to be as successful without having to.”