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By Daniel Cappello
When John Michael Schert dances, the frame of the stage retreats to the background. In Migration, Alonzo King’s dance about nature and life cycles—birth, displacements, returns—he hurls himself around, stomping, flailing, jumping, kicking. It is a primordial, aboriginal dance, which Schert laces with a hypnotic elegance of form, a pure line that brings order to chaos, reminding us of the nobility of movement in animals and humans alike.
A member of Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet in San Francisco, Schert is one of nine dancers who bring to life this choreographer’s kinetic, rhapsodic interpretation of the world (see “Breathtaking LINES,” p. 34). Schert also dances with the Trey McIntyre Project, the modern ballet company of which he is the managing director. His is an unusual career path, with several years in American Ballet Theatre’s corps before he struck out in a new, and for him more promising, direction.
For Schert, dancing is in his blood. He grew up in Valdosta, Georgia, where his mother, Jan Schert, was a dancer. “I’ve always danced,” he says. One moment from when he was about 8 years old stands out. “I remember my mom dancing in a production of Carmina Burana at Valdosta State University. Maybe it was the familial bond of seeing her onstage, but I recall feeling the movement in me as I sat watching from the audience,” he says. “I couldn’t contain the urge to join in.”
As a child, he dabbled in tap and jazz and then at 12 with self-admitted “zero technique,” he spent five weeks at the School of American Ballet summer intensive in New York. It was a “huge experience” that opened the door to the world of classical ballet. When it came time for high school, he decided to go to North Carolina School of the Arts. There he felt a sense of belonging with others who shared his passion for dance. He trained under Duncan Noble, who he says taught him “how to create with others, and how to be a partner;” and Melissa Hayden, who instilled a sense of confidence.
While at NCSA, Schert participated in an ABT summer intensive, where John Meehan, then artistic director of the Studio Company, singled him out. After graduation in 2000, he joined the main company’s corps, and danced with ABT until 2003. For some dancers, ABT can be as much a curse as a blessing. “I knew ABT offered an incredible place to grow as an artist, but I was yearning to be more involved in the process of dance, to be close to the source of the dance and work with the choreographer.”
After he left, he danced for a four-month stint at Cedar Lake, where he met Alonzo King, who was there as a guest choreographer. The following year King brought Schert to LINES. Schert feels he has found a true mentor in the choreographer, who is receptive to a give-and-take with his dancers. “Sharing those moments of the work process with Alonzo, in the studio, with other dancers, is sacred to me,” Schert says. King, in turn, admires the depth of Schert’s commitment. “He’s articulate and physically honest,” King says. “We both carry the responsibility of bringing our best thinking, feeling, and doing to the workplace.”
Schert’s dancing is hauntingly beautiful, so rarefied, so polished, that he belongs—like it or not—to what might be called the “haute American WASP” school: trained in tradition, dancing with a patrician perfectionism. For a dancer of his height, 6'2", he is pleasantly not lanky. “I try to be fully aware of all the connections in my body,” he observes.
His movements are elegantly expressive and never overdone. Intriguingly, there remains a certain distance between Schert himself and what is being performed. This might be what King means when he says that Schert is “both distant and present.” It’s as if he’s holding back on revealing himself. The dance, in other words, speaks for itself.
“Everybody has a way of expressing themselves, and when I dance, I can understand myself,” Schert says. “As an artist,” he continues, “a big goal is to be present, to be honest and sincere. This is not an act, this is not just about portraying, but feeling. It’s more important to me to be feeling it. If I’m feeling it, the audience will feel it too.” Judging by the reactions in audiences and at stage doors, Schert is communicating in clear lines.
Daniel Cappello, a New Yorker assistant editor, has written for Playbill and Quest.