Michael Bjerknes, 51; Ballet Master Was Vital Artistic Force in D.C. Area

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 21, 2008

Michael Bjerknes, a former Washington Ballet dancer and ballet master and co-founder of the American Dance Institute in Rockville, died April 14 of colon cancer at the Washington Home and Community Hospice. He was 51.

Mr. Bjerknes, a Bethesda resident, also was a soloist with the Houston Ballet and a principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, as well as a guest artist with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada and the Northern Ballet Theatre of England. Agnes de Mille, Robert Joffrey and Choo-San Goh choreographed original roles for him.

After Mr. Bjerknes stopped dancing, he became a teacher and ballet master at the Washington Ballet and the Universal Ballet in Seoul. He was an influential creative force in the Washington area for the past two decades.

In 2000, he and wife Pamela Bjerknes, a former member of American Ballet Theatre, founded the American Dance Institute, a thriving school and performance space. The institute came about at an opportune time, the couple told The Washington Post shortly after its opening. Pamela Bjerknes, then 46, was looking to expand her private teaching career, while her husband, then 43, was not eager to be a peripatetic artistic director, his next logical career step. Their three children also were in school.

"I have a limited ability to become a bohemian again," Mr. Bjerknes told The Post.

His preparation for running the American Dance Institute included working in sales and strategic consulting for General Electric and earning a master's degree in business and international finance at the University of Maryland. He and his wife opened the institute in a renovated 20,000-square-foot warehouse, and it soon became an integral part of the local dance scene.

The couple conceived of the institute as primarily an educational institution, not strictly a ballet school. "My philosophy is -- and maybe it's naive in this world today -- but I think that if you create somebody who is happy with themselves, and confident, and you provide them good training, if they're meant to be a dancer, you're going to produce a professional dancer, who's also a great person, and interested artist and active individual," Mr. Bjerknes said in a Ballet Alert! interview in 2003.

Mr. Bjerknes was known for his generosity to local artists. He provided rehearsal space to local groups, including Helanius J. Wilkins and Edgeworks Dance Theater, and choreographers Ed Tyler, Adrian Clancy and Anna Menendez. The institute has become a vital arts incubator for the Washington area.

When Washington Ballet dancers were laid off for three months in 2006, Mr. Bjerknes and his wife offered them free classes and rehearsal space and made available the school's 140-seat studio-cum-theater for dancer-directed performances. All the money raised went to the dancers' relief fund.

Michael Lief Bjerknes was born in Oak Park, Ill., and graduated from high school at 13. He was first exposed to ballet when, as a 10-year-old, he had a crush on a girl and tagged along with her to dance class. He was immediately captivated by what he would come to appreciate as the balance of mind, body and music in a strict form. In 1967, a year after his first ballet class, he performed his first role on stage as a "party boy" and a "soldier" in "The Nutcracker."

He received his undergraduate degree at 16 from Rosary College in 1973 -- majoring in math, with a minor in physics -- and began his professional dance career that year with Joffrey II, the Joffrey Ballet's apprentice company.

At 6-foot-3, with an elegant appearance on stage, he became a soloist with the Chicago Ballet in 1974. He was a soloist with the Houston Ballet from 1976 to 1978 and then returned to New York, where he was a soloist and teacher with the Joffrey Ballet until 1984. He was principal dancer with the Milwaukee Ballet in 1984 and with the Washington Ballet from 1985 to 1990. From 1991 to 1994, he was a dancer and guest ballet master with Universal Ballet.

Survivors include his wife of 28 years, Pamela Bjerknes of Bethesda; three children, Philip Bjerknes of San Francisco, and Anna Bjerknes and Alexandra Bjerknes, both of Bethesda; his father, Christian Bjerknes of San Francisco; and two sisters and three brothers.

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