‘Questions About Angels’ By Choreographer Joseph Mills

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Joseph Mills, a former principal dancer with MOMIX Dance Theater and Erick Hawkins Dance Company, has formed his own company, Mills/works Dance (http://millsworksdance.com), and is preparing “Questions About Angels,” an evening-length suite of four works, to premiere January 13 to 22, 2012 at Theater for the New City (www.theaterforthenewcity.net). It is the first full length work that he has both choreographed and designed.

“Questions About Angels” was originally inspired by the Billy Collins poem of the same name (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176044). It delves into what we learn about ourselves as we explore the concept of what is angelic: the asexual purity, power, wrath, vengeance and yes, even the sexiness of angels. There are references to many pieces of literature, including paintings and sculptures of Jacob wrestling an angel in the book of Genesis to mythological characters such as Icarus and Narcissus.

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Joseph Mills performs in the Icarus Aspires section of Questions About Angels at Theater for the New City, NYC January 13 to 22, 2012. Circle Walker sculpture in photo is by Alan Boeding. Photo by Jeff Greenberg.

Mills is also a visual artist and so he integrates movement, costume and setting as a singular aesthetic. The piece incorporates yards of voluminous fabric, first as costume, then as a scenic element. Angels are often described as beings of pure light, or as being clothed in garments of light. As such, the work incorporates a great many reflective surfaces. Beings of light populate the transitions between the larger choreographic works and the use of reflection in the work is both literal and poetic.

Sets and costumes by Joseph Mills; lighting design by Jeff Greenberg. The dancers are Mills, John-Mario Sevilla (a veteran of Pilobolus), Jillian Hollis, Jaema Joy Berry, Jia Yan Yong and Samantha Beneventano. There is music by Michael Hunt and Yaz Kaz and an ambient electronica mix. Sound design is by Joseph Mills and Dan Adamsky.

The evening consists of four main choreographic works. These are joined by interstitial choreography for dancers and hand-held lighting effects:

“Watcher/Messenger” is a gently acrobatic solo exploring a recurrent theme in angel lore. Angels are often referred to as messengers. A female figure, danced by Jillian Hollis, searches for understanding, but what is the message? The place is set with a lone strand of rope covered in glittering shards of reflective material.

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Xu Xiubing and Nicole Bilbao in On the Head of a Pin by Joseph Mills, part of his eveninglength work, Questions About Angels. Photo by Jeff Greenberg.

“Balthamos and Baruch” is a sensuous duet for two men (either or both could be angels), danced by Joseph Mills and John-Mario Sevilla. It explores forbidden love (narcisistic love of self, or love between man and angel, or between two men). The poetic vocabulary is highly physical and infinitely delicate, suggesting that depictions of angels are simply another way of describing the many ways we love each other.

“Icarus Aspires” is a solo for a man and a sculpture, adapted and performed by Joseph Mills, from “Circle Walker” by Alan Boeding, which was performed in early MOMIX shows. Utilizing some existing vocabulary and some new, this section creates a transition between the gravity bound world of man and the celestial world of the angelic. Flying, falling and suspended between the two, this section speaks to a world of wonder and possibility when we are propelled into other ways of seeing and being.

Joseph Mills grew up on a farm in Illinois, where he discovered dance through the visual arts and a passionate curiosity for gymnastics. In 1982, he earned a BFA in visual arts with an emphasis in sculpture and drawing from Southern Illinois University, where he also began studying dance with Alcine Wiltz. He performed and choreographed with the Mid America Dance Company in St. Louis, touring throughout the central United States.

In 1987, Mills joined, and became a principal dancer with MOMIX Dance Theater. During his tenure with MOMIX, Mills collaborated on several choreographic projects with Director, Moses Pendleton, and toured extensively throughout the U.S., South America, Europe and Asia until 1990. Thereafter, he continued as a guest artist with the company until 1995. He joined the Erick Hawkins Dance Company as a principal dancer and worked with the company from 1990-94. In his last year with the company, he worked closely with Mr. Hawkins as Choreographic Associate on a commissioned dance, “Many Thanks.”

Mills earned a doctorate from Temple University in 1998 (his dissertation dealt with Pilobolus) and has since, in addition to performing, taught at George Washington University and the Dance Program at Northwestern University, where he was Program Director from 2002-08. As a guest artist, he has choreographed and performed in Norway, Brazil, St. Louis, and Washington D.C. “Mills/works,” an evening of works by and for Mills, was presented at The Kennedy Center. He has been a guest artist with Wellspring Dance Company in Michigan, with The Erick Hawkins Dance Company in NY, with former Hawkins colleague Catherine Tharin, and with Heidi Latsky Dance (current). Since 2008, he has been on the faculty of Queens College-CUNY and is launching this project as part of his return to New York’s Performance and Choreography scene.

Mills has choreographed and contributed to over 40 dance works over the past 30 years. His work is informed by his strong visual arts background and his equally strong fascination with somatic and movement studies. He cites The Erick Hawkins Company and MOMIX as his main creative influences, saying he fully embraces Hawkins’ technical approach to movement while being very influenced by the athleticism and accessibility of MOMIX. He strives to balance these qualities in his own work, aiming for dances that are as intriguing in their poetry as they are in their physical and technical prowess.

This is Mills’ first production at TNC. He writes, “For many years, Theater for the New City has held a reputation for nurturing innovative performance. Over the years it has consistently served the needs of the community and introduced contemporary voices in the performing arts to countless individuals. I am grateful to Artistic Director, Crystal Field, for providing me an opportunity to introduce my new work to this New York audience.”

Lighting design is by Jeff Greenberg, whose last production at Theater for the New City was “Starry Messenger” by Ira Hauptman, directed by Susan Einhorn, last season.

The performing ensemble includes John-Mario Sevilla, who is mostly known for his work with Pilobilus. He has also danced with Rebecca Stenn, From the Horse’s Mouth, Daman Harun, Erin Dudley, Lisa Giobbi, Nikolais and Louis, Shapiro and Smith, Janis Brenner, Anna Sokolow and Bill Cratty. He directs the Dance Education Laboratory at the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center and teaches at New York University Steinhardt. The ensemble also includes Jaema Joy Berry, Jia Yan Yong, Samantha Beneventano, Jillian Hollis and Joseph Mills.

Performances are January 13 to 22, 2012 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue (Johnson Theater). The schedule is Wed-Sat at 8:00 PM; Sun at 3:00 PM. Tickets are $12. The box office number is (212) 254-1109; www.theaterforthenewcity.net.