Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Remembering Michael Bjerknes

Today I mourn Michael Bjerknes, my friend, confidante, business associate, compatriot, and soulmate. He died Monday of colon cancer. He was only 51.

Michael was a giant of a man and of life. I've never known anyone with such a perfectly bifurcated brain. Half was devoted to the arts; from his early teens, he was an avid ballet dancer and served as the principal dancer in the Joffrey Ballet, among other companies. Agnes de Mille even choreographed a part for him!



The other half was pure business and technology. After retiring as a professional dancer, he earned his MBA from the University of Maryland and went to work as a business consultant. That's when I met him. I got a call from his boss to come in and talk about doing marketing for the small technology company for which he was working. He and I instantly connected - and were in complete agreement that his boss was a consummate idiot. We were wonderful pals ever after.

When that unfortunate venture inevitably went south, Michael partnered with his wife, Pam (also a retired professional ballerina), and founded the American Dance Institute. He called me as soon as they got started and asked me to build a brand. He gave me free reign and all his confidence. To date, it is still one of my favorite logos. Michael obtained a long-term lease on a building in Rockville and built an entire studio based on the periwinkle ribbon in the logo. It is one gorgeous building for a terrific staff that teaches dance and Pilates to dozens of children and adults alike.



Michael and I remained friends throughout. He was always a long-suffering business coach and offered cogent, free advice about how I should best run my business. We'd regularly meet for breakfast to discuss business, life, and love. He always had a patient ear and a kind heart.

When I left my husband and my life started to tilt, he understood. By that point, he was ill and had some perspective on his plight, I think. He told me that in all the time he'd known me, I'd always looked for validation from the outside. When we first met, I sought approval through money and success. Then I had the weight loss surgery and looked for validation from men. He challenged me to validate myself from within and to accept what he knew all along: that I was terrific just as I was.

I will never forget this.

Nor will I forget the companion conversation Michael and I had the last time I saw him in February. Wheelchair bound, he questioned who he really was since he was no longer the strapping, 6-foot-four dancer of his youth. If he'd lived his life through his body, who was he now that his body had deserted him? His sister had tried to reassure him that as long as he had his brain, he would still be himself. But I saw this differently. To me, Michael was Michael because of his esse, his soul, his being. You can't take those things away from him. His body is gone, and that magnificent brain has passed. But Michael will always be Michael. He lives on within me, giving me the approval I so badly need. How ironic.

My world is a sadder, smaller place today. But as I told him 400 times in the past few months, I love Michael Bjerknes. What a giant among men. What a blessing to have known him.

9 comments :

Mark Bjerknes said...

Pam forwarded your post to the family. These are beautiful and kind words. Thank you.

Mark Bjerknes

Julie Matthews Burnette said...

Mark,

Michael was literally one of the best people I've ever known. What a terrible loss to this world.

I can't think about Michael without crying, so I can't even imagine what it must be like for you. I miss him so much already. I hold your family in my heart and prayers. Thanks so much for your kind words back to me.

Dierdre Miles Burger said...

Thank you Jule for your very heartfelt blog. I did not know Michael well. He and Pam were in Houston Ballet just before I spent time there. We shared many mutual friends. Later we spent time in many a class with Maggie Black. A good ten years later we reconnected, as I came across his beautifully trained students while principal of Boston Ballet School. We e-maileed and shared experiences a few times here and there. When I heard the recent devastating news I was so incredibly saddened. In contacting my friends that knew him they were too. What a loss for the ballet world, for all the young students that have benefitted from his knowledge and his care, and of course his family. Too young-too soonto be taken from this earth. But none the less he leaves a great legacy. He had a profound impact on so many in his quiet, most eloquent way. A great man,dancer, teacher, and human being. Please extend my deepest condolences to his wife Pam, his children, and his family. He will not be forgotten.

Dierdre Miles Burger

HYoung said...

Michael was a very special dancer, and one I did keep in touch with periodically when in and out of Annapolis over the past few years. As a former Executive Director for the Joffrey I remember him as having a very sound mind and an amazing control of his height in dance. His insights over my years helped in a number of ways to close the gap of communication during the work out of debt I inherited with taking over the business management of the Joffrey. I am sad to learn of his passing today as I too had colon cancer but was one of the lucky one's I quess, as its 15 years since that procedure.

Anonymous said...

I came to know Michael Bjerknes when I was as an 11 or 12 year old ballet student at the Ruth Page School of Dance in Chicago in the 1970s. I have live in Bermuda for the last 20 years, but had heard through common friends that he was ill. I am so sorry to hear of his passing and send best wishes, though belated, to his family. He might have been 17 or so at the time I first got to know him. I was a little girl learning russian in anticipation of a junior high school history trip. When he came across me studying backstage during the Chicago Tribune sponsored Nutcracker performances , he offered to help. Even at that young age, he was an amazing teacher/tutor. Later, I joined Joffrey II (years after Michael) and would see him sometimes at City Center in New York where Joffrey rehearsed. I respected him greatly for his ability to combine his ballet career with very rich intellectual life -- one of the most inspiring people I have ever met.

Anonymous said...

I came to know Michael Bjerknes when I was as an 11 or 12 year old ballet student at the Ruth Page School of Dance in Chicago in the 1970s. I have live in Bermuda for the last 20 years, but had heard through common friends that he was ill. I am so sorry to hear of his passing and send best wishes, though belated, to his family. He might have been 17 or so at the time I first got to know him. I was a little girl learning russian in anticipation of a junior high school history trip. When he came across me studying backstage during the Chicago Tribune sponsored Nutcracker performances , he offered to help. Even at that young age, he was an amazing teacher/tutor. Later, I joined Joffrey II (years after Michael) and would see him sometimes at City Center in New York where Joffrey rehearsed. I respected him greatly for his ability to combine his ballet career with very rich intellectual life -- one of the most inspiring people I have ever met.

Andrew Schultz said...

Julie-
I came across this post while doing some aimless surfing tonight. I know it's a year too late, but thank you for your post about Michael. We studied together at Stone-Camryn Ballet in our youth, and while we did not keep in touch, I have often wondered how he was. This makes me so sad; he was good people, and a much better student than me! :)
peace,
Andrew Schultz

E from EC said...

Julie: I found this when I searched for Mike tonight. I went to grade school with him in Oak Park, IL and was saddened to "find" him, only to lose him all in a minute. I want you to know we will have your remembrance in our book this October when we gather after a 41 year absence. I am sad I wasn't aware of both his talent and his successes. Thank you for posting it so we could find it. Now we will all know.

Julie Matthews said...

Michael was a splendid human being. I'm sorry you had to learn the sad news this way - and that you didn't get to know Michael better. I miss him every day.