Jack Anderson

Questions About Angels

Joseph Mills
" Questions About Angels"
Theater for the New City
January 13-22 (closed)
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, January 24, 2012

"Icarus Aspires" -- Joseph Mills and Circle Walker sculpture by Alan Boeding. Photo by Jeff Greenberg.

Angels are both puzzling and appealing. Although they are supposedly amorphous and sexless beings, they can be depicted by humans only in material terms, artists and writers making them often radiantly beautiful and even sexy. They can be physically powerful, as well. The peculiar nature of angels prompted Billy Collins to write "Questions About Angels," the title poem of his collection of 1991. That poem, in turn, became one of the inspirations for Joseph Mills’s suite of little dances, also called "Questions About Angels."

"Balthamos and Baruch or Jacob Wrestling the Angel"--John-Mario Sevilla (L) and Joseph Mills (R). Photo by Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation.

Collins’s witty and gently philosophical angelic inquiries usually proved more interesting than those of Mills. One reason why has to do with the nature of their media. Poetry, like any other verbal medium, can summon up all sorts of realistic or fantastic things. Yet words are not those things: they are evocative marks on paper, and poets can tell without also literally showing. Dance, however, must of necessity be specific, for it is an art involving solid bodies, requiring choreographers to show as well as tell what’s on their minds. Although Collins can easily ask, do angels "fly through God’s body and come out singing?", choreographers who try to express this idea (which, perhaps fortunately, Mills did not) might all too readily turn angelic flying and singing into lumbering activities.

"On the Head of a Pin"-- Samantha Benventano. Photo by Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation

Mills made the Collins poem only a springboard for his own excursions into angelology, and there were times when his dancing bodies did indeed appear to dematerialize. Thus, in "Bodies of Light," dancers who seemed to be shrouded with cobwebs looked believably spectral as they materialized from and returned to darkness while shining light upon themselves from hand-held flashlights. And "Icarus Aspires," adapted from a dance choreographed and designed by Alan Boeding , found Mills encased inside a revolving sculpture, hanging on, leaning forward, and swinging about with the greatest of ease. This was an Icarus who would never plummet to earth. In total contrast was "Balthamos and Baruch or Jacob Wrestling the Angel," a strenuously muscular duet in which Mills and John-Mario Sevilla, both wearing jeans, contended fiercely in a biblically based reminder that, in some traditions angels can be mighty warriors.

Three women emerged from cocoons in "On the Head of a Pin": a striking image. But then they did little more than waft and swirl around the stage. A specific image gave way to vagueness. And that was true of too many of the work’s other scenes, so that it sometimes became difficult to ascertain what questions Mills was asking about his angels and what he thought the answers might be. Yet he did make a brave attempt to dance into the empyrean.


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