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“Jesus Christ Superstar” plays at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday in Drake Park. Doors at 6 p.m. Tickets range from $22 to $75. Visit theaterbend.com for more information.

If Bend dancer and choreographer Michelle Mejaski’s life were a play, in Act 1 she’d discover her love of dancing, and a career to embrace it. Things would take a darker turn in Act 2. After establishing herself as a Bend dance instructor and choreographer, Mejaski would undergo treatment for four types of cancer, and later be diagnosed with inoperable brain aneurysms.

As for Act 3 — that’s just getting started. After more than two decades of teaching countless people to dance and choreographing dozens of musical theater productions, Mejaski, 46, will make her directorial debut with next weekend’s performances of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in Drake Park.

The one-weekend production replaces Lay It Out Events’ former Shakespeare in the Park offerings.

“This has been a dream since she was a little girl,” said longtime friend Carolyn Graham Tsuneta, who recalled Mejaski telling her more than a decade ago, “‘I’m going to do my own production of this show. I know I will. I don’t know when, but I’m going to do it.’ She’s just determined.”

“I don’t take one day for granted,” Mejaski said. Whatever life throws in her path, “I’m always just ready to handle it, to deal with what I need to deal with and get through and be on the other side.”

Childhood dance

Mejaski, who moved to Bend in 1996, grew up in Indianapolis. She began dancing at 4, and quickly knew she wanted to make a life of it.

“I’ve always wanted to be a professional dancer,” she said over coffee outside a west Bend coffee shop earlier this summer. “My whole life. I’ve never wanted to do anything else.”

Mejaski’s friends describe her as positive, upbeat, always smiling. Tsuneta said she has “a central core of joy that … infuses everything she does.”

Mejaski and her husband, Mike, began dating their junior year of high school. She was not quite as happy back then as she is now, he said.

“I would say maybe not as much, or maybe I didn’t see it as much, until we really matured and got out on our own,” he said.

By her own account, Mejaski found high school difficult to navigate.

“I never knew where I belonged. I never had a social circle I felt comfortable with, and it’s kind of because I liked everyone,” she said. “But because I liked everyone, they would tend to ostracize me because they didn’t understand why I liked everyone. I’d hang out with a pompom girl, and she’d be like, ‘Why are you hanging out with this band person? He’s such a dork.’ It’s one of those things. ‘I can’t believe you’re talking to him.’ Well, I can’t believe you’re not.”

Dancing provided refuge, but larger class settings were no less alienating.

“I didn’t like the classes,” she said. “ … I started doing private lessons. It was me and one friend, and we would just do duets. I wanted away from the pettiness of the girls that were … just judgmental and rude.”

At the studio, her future career began to take shape. When Mejaski was just 15, the studio’s one tap instructor told her she had nothing more to teach Mejaski.

“I was at her level. They wanted to continue my training somehow, so they had me be an assistant instructor,” she said. “As soon as I started teaching at 15, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” By 17, she was leading adult classes and learning choreography.

After graduating from high school in 1990, she attended college at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. At the time, dance was not offered as a major or minor, so she studied graphic art, advertising, management and marketing, and also took dance classes.

After college graduation, she and Mike married in spring 1995. Mejaski worked doing graphic design.

“I got my 9 to 5 and my cubicle and worked on a computer — hated it,” she said. “Mike did the same thing. His commute was 45 minutes, so was mine, in opposite directions. We’d get home late at night, just to wake up, do the same thing the next day. We both were like, ‘This is not the life we want at all.’”

Knowing they wanted to get out of the Midwest, the couple saved up money for a year, then loaded up their Volkswagen bus and hit the road. They checked out Colorado, California, Washington and Oregon. Bend, where Mejaski’s best friend had moved after graduation, was on the itinerary.

The two liked Bend, and briefly took up residence in a garage before renting a house with her old friend. Mejaski worked at the now-defunct coffee shop A Cup of Magic, and taught for a year at Terpsichorean Dance Studio.

“I knew that I wanted to be a dance teacher. Mike said, ‘Why don’t you open up a dance studio?’ and ‘What is the worst that could happen?’”

In 2001, she opened Gotta Dance Studio and Company. Its first home was a small Gasoline Alley space in downtown Bend. Before long, it moved to Erickson’s Plaza on Greenwood Avenue, starting with one room.

“We put up a wall, so we had two rooms. Outgrew that, and leased the bottom of it. And then we had three rooms. And I was like, ‘OK, we’re big enough now. Let’s just go ahead and stop.’”

Choreography

Mejaski has an 850-square-foot dance studio at her home on Bend’s west side.

“I have every poster of everything I’ve ever done hung up in my studio, and that’s my résumé,” she said.

The posters date back to March 1997, when she choreographed her first musical, a Mountain View High School production of “Grease.” The school’s drama teacher at the time, Deb DeGrosse, knocked on Mejaski’s door one day to ask her if she would choreograph the show.

“And I instantly said, ‘Yes,’” Mejaski said. “When she left, I thought to myself, ‘Ooh. I haven’t choreographed before. What exactly does this entail?’”

She quickly discovered that in musical theater, choreography is one more tool of storytelling.

“It isn’t ‘Oh, the music’s on, just choreograph a dance routine.’ No, you are telling a story still from start to finish. Those characters typically will still be going through some metamorphosis or some change,” she said. “And as soon as the music starts, THAT continues on. The characters don’t suddenly stop growing or becoming, and so I started to understand what it’s like to choreograph for characters, and how to choreograph for a musical.”

As she grew her school, she also began training in choreography.

“Any chance I got to study dance choreography — not just dance training, but actual choreography — I’d do (it),” she said. “Whenever I would go to New York to train at places like Broadway Dance Center, I would take choreography classes.”

In addition to choreographing for Mountain View, Mejaski began working on productions at other schools and area companies, including Cascades Theatrical Company, Cat Call Productions and Shore Thing Productions. Her credits include “Chicago,” “The Producers,” “Cabaret,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and many others.

In 2016, after 15 years of running Gotta Dance, Mejaski sold the school she built to focus full time on teaching — she now teaches tap and choreography at Acadamie de Ballet Classique in Bend — and Mejaski Choreography. The urge to direct grew from that aspect of theater work.

“I kind of figured out I could direct when I worked with directors who would collaborate with me as a choreographer,” she said. “People like Michael Nowak, of the Tower Theatre … when we did ‘Les Miz,’ (he) was very open to me as a choreographer seeing a scene (and) pointing something out with my line of vision and saying something to the effect of, ‘Everything right now is playing heavy stage right.’”

A new diagnosis

In December 2016, in the early morning of her 45th birthday, Mejaski climbed out of bed feeling oddly disoriented. She switched on a light and fell, hitting her head on the wood floor of her bedroom.

“I went, ‘Wham,’ and I just passed flat out,” she said. “The thud woke up Mike. And he was like, ‘Oh my God, are you OK? What happened, what happened?’ He was all dazed and confused, too.”

Figuring she was probably OK, they went back to sleep.

Later that day, “I go out and I’m kind of out of it, and I have a black eye, and the black eye is getting worse by the hour,” Mejaski said.

She felt disconnected, awkward, and found speaking difficult yet didn’t realize something was wrong. And then friend Kimmie Neff, just diagnosed with thyroid cancer, stopped by to talk. During about the same 15-year period she’d run Gotta Dance, Mejaski had been diagnosed with and successfully treated for cancer four times: cervical and uterine (2002), thyroid (2007) and — she hardly counts this one — basal cell carcinoma (2015).

“She had previously had thyroid cancer, so I knew if there was anyone I was going to talk to, it was going to be Michelle,” Neff said. As they talked, “I was just noticing — she wasn’t much of a drinker — her speech was kind of slurred. She wasn’t making a lot of sense.”

At the time, Mejaski was working on the musical “Spring Awakening.” When she tried to head to rehearsal, Neff suggested the hospital instead.

“I was like, ‘Nope, you have to go to the emergency room,’” Neff said.

A CT scan revealed something amiss on the left side of Mejaski’s brain. An angiogram was scheduled for the next day.

“They explained the angiogram is shooting dye through a vein,” she said, “and that the dye will be carried through the blood and into my brain, and they’ll be able to see my brain on a huge screen.”

“I said, ‘Let’s go.’ I’m very used to hospitals at this point, doctors. I don’t get nerves. I don’t get scared.”

The results, however, were scary.

Her doctor, neurosurgeon Kent Yundt, diagnosed Mejaski with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), a cluster of arteries and veins.

“They found not only do I have an AVM cluster, I have three brain aneurysms inside the cluster. And that is so rare, they don’t have a statistic for it,” she said, laughing. “ … I’m like, ‘Jeez, I’ve already had cancer, like, four times. I have enough wrong with my body, do I really need something wrong with my brain?’”

The show must go on

Compared with the cancers, the aneurysms, or bulges in the wall of an artery, are “a little scarier,” said her husband. “But she’s always had the attitude of staying positive. You just have to deal with what you’ve been dealt. I think she has the attitude of not focusing on that, or not focusing on the negative, and just do what you can do, and get through it.”

The first of the annual exams she now undergoes found that the inoperable aneurysms have not grown in size, nor were there any new symptoms associated with them, according to Mark Stewart, administrator at Northwest Brain and Spine, the clinic founded by Yundt in 2004.

“You do not want them to grow,” Mejaski said. “The more they grow, the more likely they are to rub against a vein or an artery. And then that’s when they burst.”

In the meantime, she proceeds to plow forward through life.

“I’m at complete peace with it,” Mejaski said. “What if they don’t hemorrhage until I’m 81? I’m just going to sit here and waste the next 40 years of my life waiting for that to happen? And if it does happen in three months, then I have lived the best life possible. And that’s just what I’m going to do.”

Mejaski has been crossing off bucket list items, including buying a drum kit and taking lessons, as well as traveling to Hawaii with Mike, where they took a helicopter tour on Kauai.

“There’s something that’s just bad-ass about helicopters,” she said. “We paid extra so I could ride in the front seat next to the pilot, I loved it. I loved every second of it.”

After “Jesus Christ Superstar” wraps, she and her husband plan to return to Hawaii and visit family in the Midwest.

“You can’t live every day like that, you know? Not unless you’re rich,” Mejaski said. So she takes a simple approach to day-to-day life.

“I do something every single day that makes me happy,” she said. “I do things every day for myself, whether it’s something grand or something very simple, like calling up a friend and saying, ‘Do you want to meet for tea today?’ and just having a wonderful conversation over tea with a friend.”

And then she’ll get to work directing another show: a January 2019 production of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” at Cascades Theatrical Company.

In the meantime, she lives with a deep appreciation of every day.

“I was like that with my cancers, too, but a little more so with this, because I recovered from my cancers. I do not recover from this. I have people say, ‘Oh, yeah, how are you? Are you better now? Are things OK?’

“Yes and no,” she said. “I’m here. And as long as I’m standing here alive, I’m fine.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0349, djasper@bendbulletin.com

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