“Of all the questions you might want to ask about angels, the only one you ever hear is how many can dance on the head of a pin.”
So begins former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins’ poem, “Questions About Angels,” which has inspired a dance production that delves into questions of love and humanity and is being choreographed, costumed and performed by Queens College students as part of a class that gives pupils a glimpse into the professional creative world.
The show, also titled “Questions About Angels,” is the brainchild of Joseph Mills, an assistant dance professor at Queens College and veteran of the dance and theater world. It will run from Jan. 13-15 and Jan. 18-22 at the Theater for the New City at 155 First Avenue in Manhattan.
“After I read the Billy Collins poem, I started thinking about angels and what are they?” said Mills, an Illinois native who has toured in dance productions throughout the United States, South America, Europe and Asia. “Yes, we always think about the purity of angels, but if you go to the Internet and type in “angels,” lots of erotic images will also come up. It seems the angel is always the perfect love object. I’m trying to play around with the multiple definitions of love. Ultimately, I think angels, in the many ways we interpret them, are ways of talking about love.”
The four-piece production is the culmination of work that Mills and Queens College students began less than two weeks ago, at the dawn of 2012. The students participating in the production, which also features Queens College alumni and professional dancers, are members of Mills’ class that allows students to work hands-on, as performers, backstage crew members, or both, in a professional dance or theater environment in Manhattan.
“The idea is to mentor students in our professional work,” Mills said. “They get the opportunity to work on a professional production and see how much work a choreographer actually does. I have students who are performing and others who are working in backstage crew kind of roles, and some are doing both.”
Mills is hoping that the class will help to boost students’ self-esteem when it comes to finding a job in the arts.
“They get to actually see a potential career path in what they’re doing,” Mills said. “They see themselves involved, alumni involved and professionals involved. They get a sense of, ‘Yeah, this is something I can do; I can really become a dancer.’”
Nicole Bilbao, a Queens College senior and dance major who has worked with Mills before, said the class has further inspired her to seriously look for dance work once she graduates this spring.
“It makes you well-rounded,” Bilbao, a Richmond Hill native, said of the course. “It gives me more insight into what to expect after I graduate.”
A dancer since the age of 3, Bilbao described “Questions About Angels” as a “really cool concept” that “touches on all these different things we think about when we think of angels.”
The performance begins with the piece, “On the Head of a Pin,” danced by a trio of women who explore the “asexual purity that we often think of as angelic,” according to information from Queens College.
The second piece, “Watcher/Messenger,” is an acrobatic solo for a woman covered in glittering shards of silver and gold and depicts a recurring theme of angels as observers or messengers.
“Balthamos and Baruch” is a “sensuous” duet for two men that examines the concept of forbidden love. The production ends with “Icarus Aspires,” a solo dance that Bilbao said she especially loves, and which “creates a transition between the gravity-bound world of man and the celestial world of the angelic,” according to the same statement from the college.
The costumes and use of light during the production brings the production to the level of the ethereal, and, watching the dancers as they seem to float across the stage, it’s easy to see how Billy Collins’ words have come to life.
“Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?” Collins wrote in the poem. “Do they swing like children from the hinges of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards? Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors? What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes, their diet of unfiltered divine light?”
In this dance production, it is not the answers to these that the performers seek, only an exploration of love and wonder that seems to bring about even more questions.
“It is designed to make us think in millions, billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one: one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet, a small jazz combo working in the background,” the poem continues. “She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over to glance at his watch because she has been dancing forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.”
“Questions About Angels” will be performed at 8 p.m. on Jan. 13, 14, 18, 19, 20 and 21. It will be performed at 3 p.m. on Jan. 15 and 22.