Episode #7: Phillip Mills

An interview with Phillip Mills, former ballet dancer turned skating choreographer to elite athletes in the sport. 39 minutes, 54 seconds.

Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On his most embarrassing skating moment:  When I was living in Milano, Italy, with Carlo and Christa Fassi,  [there was] a huge arena opening in Rome, and the Italian skating federation wanted to present a big spectacular event. So Gilberto Viadini, the Italian champion, he was kind of a big industrial-type guy, liked the chicks, was real rough and tumble and not real classical. And Carlo came to me and said, “The federation wants you to do a classical piece for this big show”.  So I said OK, and got this music together, and went into the rink the morning we were to start. And there was this Elvis Presley music raging in the building, and Gilberto was warming up with the moves, going crazy. And I put on my leather jacket and went out on the ice, and we started working on these classical moves. And he was so much like a duck out of water. I think I spent about 30 or 40 minutes trying to get him to do the first three or five seconds. Finally, I said, “Gilberto! Put the music on that you had when we were warming up! The Elvis Presley music! We’re not going to do this crap!” So I took off my leather jacket and I said, “Here, put this jacket on!” And he put on the jacket and it was great, we were hot, we were rolling. And we’re maybe an hour into the rehearsal and I see Carlo walk in the side door. And…I skated up to the barrier and he said, “I told you we were supposed to do the classical program!”  And I said, “He can’t do the classical program! Look at this guy!” [laughs]  And so we started going back and forth, yelling louder and louder, half in English, half in Italian. And finally I said, “Fine! We’ll do the classical program!” And he said, “No! Do the rock and roll program!” And I said, “No! We’ll do the classical program!”  And he said, “No! Do the rock and roll program!” And I said, “OKAY!” And he stopped, so dumbfounded in his tracks that I got my way, and he just stormed up to his office. And by that time I realized that everybody in the building had stopped. And I looked up and I was just mortified. Everybody in the building had heard me yelling at Carlo Fassi. And this young coach skates up to me and says [quietly], “Mr. Mills, you can’t speak like that to Carlo Fassi.” And I said, “OH YES I CAN! Because he RESPECTS me!”

So needless to say it was a huge success. {Gilberto] was the only one in a 20,000-seat arena who got a standing ovation. And Carlo Fassi, big man that he is, came to me afterwards and said, “I apologize. You were right. It was a great call and the federation was really happy.”

On developing as a choreographer:  I always try to find something I can do better than I did the year before.  For example, if one year I look back at my programs and I’m not real happy with the footwork, then that’s my focus next year. If I’m not real happy with the layout or the patterns, I try to do that better the next year. So I try to improve the quality of what I do, so I keep gaining some momentum.

Phillip Mills

On learning to skate at age 35 after a career as a professional ballet dancer: After the [1988] Olympics, Joe Druar [ice dancer] gave me his skates. And I thought, what am I going to do with these smelly old things? Bronze them? Put them on my mantelpiece? So I threw them in the closet. But then when I started interviewing [for choreography jobs] all over the country, I remember the interview at the Broadmoor with Carlo, he said, “I hope if you teach tennis, you have a racket”.  And I thought, “Hmm. Well, maybe if I wore skates, the choreography would be faster”.  I didn’t even know then what a rocker or a counter were, but I did spend a lot of time [watching] figure lessons, patch lessons, to learn how the blade moves through the ice, how it turns and checks, the bend of the knee and the ankle. So I took these skates and went into the rink very early in the morning for a long time, and I took some nasty falls. The worst thing was that for back crossovers my legs would not turn in. My legs were so turned out from being a ballet dancer that every time I’d step in my leg would be turned out. I couldn’t get that whole parallel thing. So finally one day I walked out to the ice, and all the ice dancers were there, and they just freaked out. They just couldn’t believe it, and that was the kind of the start of it. And I just threw myself right in there.

On the creative process of choreographing a program: Because I choreograph all over the country, I don’t always [get to know the skater beforehand].  For all of my higher-level skaters, we do have a dialogue about the music, but I do steer them in a direction where I think they’re going to grow artistically, but not so far left of center as where they are in their performance quality and how their body is built. Because then they look bad.  For some of the younger skaters, or a new coach, they’re better at picking the music for that season than I am because I don’t really know them yet. But what I do every time I go to a new student, the first thing I ask them is what their favorite color is. And I don’t ask them that for a costume, because the color tells me an amazing amount about what kind of personality they have.

I’m an organic choreographer, because of my ballet training. I choreograph from the inside out. So unless  you’re doing a classic that’s been around for two or three hundred years, you go from a straight base coming from inside out. I go onto the lesson with a skater, sometimes they’re crabby, sometimes they’re excited, sometimes they’re introverted, sometimes they’re extroverted. And I try to pull on their energy. So I turn the music on, and I don’t know how this happens because I have no control over it, but my body just starts to move.  I don’t know why or how, I don’t think about it, my body just does it.

On overused music: I have choreographed 58 Sing Sing Sings. I keep track.

On his reaction to changes to a program he has completed:  This does happen a lot, and you do know that there’s going to be a little bit of, say, shifting the jumps around. And you hope they’re going to try to keep the choreographer involved to keep the integrity of the piece. But many times – the frustrating part is only when they have shifted so much of the program and changed so much, and then it’s a mess. And then they want you to come back and fix it. But – obviously you know that the kids are going to water down the choreography. That’s going to happen, that’s natural. But if it’s actually so bad, I tell them, you take my name off as choreographer. That is not my piece any more. I’d say that happens 10% of the time. And that’s usually the last time I will work with them.

On his hardest client to work with: Sasha Cohen is the hardest. Because she is so incredibly talented, and movement is extremely natural to her. Last year, when I was doing her programs for Marshall’s Skate, I had to keep reeling her in, because she gets so excited and so distracted. You’re working on one part and suddenly she’s talking about another part. So it wasn’t hard choreographing on her, because anything you do, she looks amazing. It’s her energy that is hard to harness. It’s like having a wild thoroughbred: “Sasha! Whoa! Come back here now. We’re working on this section now, not that. We’ll get to that, okay?”

I would say Michelle Kwan is the easiest because of her talent and her ability to be an amazing student. She is the most quintessential amazing, focused, intelligent student that I have ever worked with. Everything you do, she tries, and even if she doesn’t like it or feel comfortable, she tries anyway. And when I choreograph, I want the movement to look like them. I don’t want the movement to look like me. My biggest fear is if somebody says, “Oh, that’s a Phillip Mills program”. That’s like the kiss of death! They’re all individuals, they all get 200% of me, and they all deserve to look like themselves, not like a pre-packaged target or something.

About the Author
Yup, I’m a skating fan. But I’m a skater too. I compete nearly every year in the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships, and am always thrilled to see my other skating buddies there. In my real life I work in marketing for brands that make positive changes in the world, and a mom of two rambunctious boys.

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