Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Q & A with Choreographer Phillip Mills

March 19, 2013 by  
Filed under Featured Articles

World renowned choreographer Phillip Mills understands movement in multiple dimensions. A gymnast growing up, Mills has spent his life experimenting with all types of movement and exercise. After his gymnastics career, Mills joined the American Ballet Theatre on scholarship and danced professionally. When it was all said and done Mills went on to choreograph some of the most well known programs in figure skating history. Upon lacing up skates, Mills worked with Michelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen, and Ekaterina Gordeeva. Most recently, he is the choreographer for two time National Champion Ashley Wagner. Mills loves what he does. IceTalent was pleased to get his perpective on skating, choreography, and loving what you do.

IT: Tell us about your dance and gymnastics background.

PM: I was a competitive gymnast. I come from a gymnastics family. One brother was an Olympian and the other one was an Olympic coach for the Dominican Republic.  I always studied classical ballet on the sly because back in those days, boys didn’t do that.  That was how I got so good at gymnastics so fast was through my classical ballet training.  After gymnastics I ended up going to American Ballet Theatre on a full scholarship and  then started my dance career. I had a 13 year long dance career where I met my wife.

IT: How did you become involved with skating?

PM: My wife  retired from the stage and opened a ballet school in Michigan. It turned out that there was this ice rink near our house that had  up and coming higher level ice dancers. They started asking us to show them some lifts and things and they thought it was so amazing. The lifts were so different from skating. There was this up and coming team, Donny Adair and Renee Roca, that looked like they had promise. They were fifth in the nation  and that’s kind of how it all started. So as I was wrapping up my dance career and we had another baby, I started slowly teaching figure skating in boots. The first five years I worked in boots.  I first statrted in ice dancing and sitting in on patch lessons to learn about the blade and how it turned and checking. It just evolved from ice dancing to singles to pairs. Here I am 30 years later.

IT: How do you incorporate your dance and gymnastics training into your choreography?

PM: Well in regards to choreography the main thing I take away from the ballet world is that we actually do things on both our dominant and non dominant sides. We spend our careers trying to hide from the audience what our dominant side is. Dancers jump in both directions and turn in both directions. I have found that to be extremely useful, especiallly switching over to the new/old IJS system becaude of the step sequences.  In regards to gymnastics, I do teach alot of jumps. I do alot of Ashley Wagner’s jumps. I actaully teach jumping  from a gymnastics technique not skating technique. I wasn’t a skater, I was a gymnast. If you’re a gymnast you can certainly understand rotating a triple jump when you’re right side up.

IT: How do you choose music for skaters?

PM: Every skater is different  and I don’t have the luxury of choosing music for each skater.  I choreograph over 100 programs a year and many times with the newer skaters that I don’t know, the coaches pick the music.  In picking music you have to look at the design of the body you’re working with. Some kids are a little stockier build and very dymanic and fast and big jumpers and others are lean and lilt.  The music has to not only compliment their body style, but hopefully push them artistically to a different level than what they’re used to.

IT: If you could choreograph to one piece of music what would it be?

PM: That piece would be one of the pieces I did as a ballet dancer many times.  It would be Afternoon of the Fawn. I hope one day I have a skater that I feel can do it justice. That’s my favroite piece of music.

IT: How has the role of choreographer changed with the new judging system in place?

PM: I love the IJS system.  If you’re good at choreographing the component marks you love the new judging system because the new judging system loves you.  I don’t think it’s stifling at all. It’s been liberating to realize that I can have an impact.  For example, if somebody doesn’t do their jumps, hopefully the choreography presentation, interpretation, execution, and skating skills can bring them up so that they can still place well.

IT: What’s the coolest opportunity that skating has ever given you?

PM: Two programs.  One was for Calla Urbanski and Rocky Marvel. They didn’t have the greatest finesse but they were extremely strong, beatutiful physical specimens as people. They gave me music they wanted to skate to. I was thumbing through a  Michaelangelo book and came across his nude athletic drawings.  I go “ah that’s it. I’m going to do a program about their physiques”.  I sent them to the Chicago Institute of Art where  unitards were built and then airbrushed onto their bodies. It took 18 hours and they had to stand there and flex each body part while they (the artists) outlined them in three differnt colors. It looked like a person- if you peeled the skin off all you could see are the muscles.

The other program was for Susie Wynne and Joseph Druar . They wanted to do a tap dance free dance. I said if we’re going to do this its going to be authentic. You’re going to learn how to tap dance. So I got them tap shoes and taught them how. They had the music arranged in New York and they flew me there. I did the tap dancing that you hear on the soundtrack.  Then I matched their feet to make it look like they were doing the tap dancing. On the track that you heard at worlds that was me tap dancing.

-Nicolette House

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