Mimmo Miccolis is an acclaimed choreographer and dancer in both contemporary and neoclassical genres and an all round wonderful person. With accolades to his name such as The Italian Excellence in Dance in The US award, the BBC performing arts fund, and many others, Mimmo sure has a lot of knowledge that he generously imparts throughout this interview. After an illustrious career that saw him perform in every region of Italy, and countries such as Austria, France, Spain, and Oman, Mimmo dived into his choreographic career. With a true passion for using dance to speak on relevant social, political, and climate change, he is a testament to the needed conversations art can facilitate. This interview touches base on his Italian heritage, his perspective on being part of the LGBTQ+ community, the power of art, choreographic skills, and so much more. I absolutely loved this interview and know you all will too!
Disclaimer* all of Mimmo’s amazing insights could not be put into a blog post word for word. Hence, some of his answers have been condensed with his approval.
What is your current profession?
I am a choreographer and contemporary dance teacher. I currently work for The Washington School of Ballet and Akhmedova Academy.
What has your career path been?
At 5 years old I started taking classes at a modern school in Conversano, South Italy. Then at 13 the late Giuseppe Mintrone offered me a scholarship to The Academy of The Fondazione Piccinni in Bari, where I studied ballet and contemporary dance. Upon receiving a scholarship to Il Balletto di Toscana at 17 years old, I continued my dance education in their ballet and contemporary professional training program. I began working professionally at 20 and danced with both neoclassical and contemporary companies. My career saw me perform in TV, opera, movies, dance illusions, and drama theatres, some of which also involved acting and singing. At 26 I moved to London which allowed me to expand my repertoire of styles (such as gaga), and during this time I started choreographing for a small local company. My work with this company saw me win the BBC performing arts fund which was a turning point in my choreographic career. In 2013 I travelled to DC, USA and after watching a performance on the Millenium Stage (Kennedy Center) I set myself the goal to get my choreography on that same stage. In order to make that dream come true I needed dancers. I showed a video of one of my works from London (titled Rights(?)) to the former director of The Washington School of Ballet. After he talked to the company director, I was granted permission to use some company dancers to perform Rights(?) on Millenium Stage. After that performance I was offered a choreographic position with The Washington Ballet.
Do you have a favourite quote/poem/piece of art, if so could you share it?
“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will never forget”. This is an adapted version of The Benjamin Franklin quote “Tell me and I will forget, teach me and I will remember, involve me and I will learn.” I heard this adapted version in a performance on art and science I did with my colleague Gloria Benedikt. We asked the audience to write thoughts that would be read during the performance and while I was dancing I heard these words. From that moment it became my favorite quote, it means so much to me. It says everything. I feel words can easily be forgotten, but through the medium of dance I can say things about important issues that I don’t want anyone to forget.
What has your experience of the LGBTQ+ community within the dance world been?
Diversity is everywhere, I just feel the freedom of expression in art makes the LGBTQ+ community more visible than in other professions. Fortunately, diversity is slowly becoming more celebrated in this world. Growing up I did feel I had to hide dance from friends and there was definitely a stigma that all boys who dance are gay. Ballet school was a safe place for me, where I could simply be myself. By the time I came out I was very strong in myself and happy with who I was, so coming out was not a big issue for me. I’m happy things are slowly changing for the LGBTQ+ community, however I feel more still needs to be done.
What is your choreographic process?
When given the choice, I like to start with the topic. I believe art has real power to change things and so I always keep up to date on world news; a lot of my work is derived from this. Once I have the topic (or sometimes before) I get to work on the music. I often work with the composer Francesco Germini and I love that this gives me the ability to use unique pieces of music for my choreography. I met him in London. Though he is also Italian, now that I am in DC we collaborate over skype. It is a creative partnership I truly appreciate. Next, it’s time to get in the studio. My first action is to talk with the dancers about the topic and try to give them a sense of the message I want audiences to receive. I have two different ways of building the actual steps. One is to build the choreography in the studio with the dancers, the other is for me to come to the studio with the choreography done and just teach it to the dancers. I use both these methods at different times and often incorporate both into the one piece. I also love to improvise and get the dancers to improvise so I see how they naturally respond to the music.
Do you have a morning routine?
One thing I do every single morning is sit down and have breakfast with my husband. We have a traditional Italian breakfast, often coffee and cookies (always sweet, never savory). I also often use the morning to read news articles and make sure I’m up to date on what’s happening in the world. I love nature, so I always check my plants in the morning and if I can, go for a walk outside.
What was your thought process around moving to America?
I was inspired to move to DC, as it is the capital of such a populated country and I feel it to be a real hub for social and political change. I think it is a great place to showcase my art that often speaks to the heart of human rights issues. I wasn’t that scared for the move, just excited for the opportunities it would bring.
What values do you feel your Italian culture has given you that influence your artistic lifestyle?
I was always surrounded by art in Italy . Every street in Italy has some form of art, even in the smallest town; for me, growing up this way means it’s so important to always feel art around me. If I’m somewhere without easy access to art, I turn to nature, which is really just boundless art. Having the constant artistic inspiration around me fuels so much of my work and has taught me the importance of ‘filling in’ a dance and giving it depth; it’s not simply steps, a dance must have ‘colour’. The amount of diverse art that I find in Italy has inspired me to bring many perspectives, diversity, and boldness to my choreography or dancing.
You were in DC when Obama legalised gay marriage for all states (#loveislove), what emotions did this invoke for you? Do you feel your experiences around being a part of the LGBTQ+ community and going through moments such as that one has inspired or influenced your artistic work at all?
I don’t feel that someone’s sexuality should differentiate them from others, it was so nice to be in DC when a step towards this was realised. It felt very special to be in the hub of politics and the same place where the decision was made. The celebrations were great, but in some ways I wish we didn’t have to celebrate, I wish it was already just the social norm. People had to fight so hard for that legal ruling (myself included), so in that way the celebrations felt like a big win! I created Aeterna in response to the decision and my aim was to showcase love in all its forms. I absolutely loved this piece and it received a great response from the audience.
Many of your choreographic works speak on human rights and environmental issues? Why is this so important to you? What values within yourself does this work speak to?
I truly believe art has the power to change things. I did not have an easy childhood, but dance helped me get through it all. I am so grateful for dance and if it was able to help me so much I see no reason why it can’t help others as well. It is a powerful tool to convey tough messages. I am fascinated by the mix of art with everyday life because I believe that combining the two can suggest answers to some of the problems that we regularly face in our lives. I believe using the arts as a channel for social change can only connect the public with the arts even more and at the same time keep important conversations going. My objective for choreographing around social issues is on one hand to allow the artist to express their view, and on the other hand allow people to relate with what they see and feel less distant from the art world. Verbal debates can lead to disagreements and arguments about facts, but discussions that use movement allow viewers to interpret the message in a way that feels true to them and takes their own experiences into account.
Have you ever experienced using art to communicate about relevant social issues to be a successful driver for change? If so, can you give an example?
Yes. I see dancers have the opportunity to view their lives inside the performance and connect with the social issue being conveyed. Many parents of students learn that dance can make a difference in our world just by watching the difference it makes to their child; they see their child researching different topics instead of just spending time on social media. The other important thing is that we can bring art to new audiences because we can speak about today and not just about fairy tales or the past. I had the opportunity to perform at the The Concert for a Sustainable Planet at Carnegie Hall in New York on the Eve of the 72nd UN General Assembly, that is not the same kind of goal every dancer has but I think it is important to bring art where it is missing.
Do you feel art is viewed differently in America than it is in Italy?
Italy is a country where art surrounds you everywhere in many diverse forms. I love Italian art and I am proud to be born in a country that’s so important to the artistic landscape of our world. At the same time I feel art in Italy is not as valued as it should be. Given the recent global economic developments, particularly after the global financial crisis, the budget allocated to the arts have substantially decreased. As a result, some prestigious dance companies lack funding to continue their work and many dancers lost their jobs. Unfortunately, in periods of economic crisis, the arts budget is the first to be cut. The art sector is predominantly funded by the government so these budget cuts and lack of value placed on art have had negative consequences on the Italian art scene.
What perceived ‘failure’ has turned into your most helpful lesson on your journey thus far?
When I moved to London from Italy I found speaking a new language very difficult. I had never learnt english before and I soon found that being able to communicate with my dancers about more than names of steps was essential when building a piece. Until that moment I feel I had underappreciated or taken that ability to communicate and collaborate for granted. Language was my biggest fear at that time, but it became the most important thing. Having to work through that fear and the language barrier taught me the importance of communication. You can’t just tell people steps, you have to tell the dancers the message you are conveying and the emotions you are wanting.
They say the pen is mightier than the sword, so if you could scribe one word to use as your weapon in life what would it be?
Strength (forza in Italian).
For me, strength goes hand in hand with determination and will power. As a child my Mum always told me to “be careful”! I always told her not to worry as I am strong. Strength is also the key word I use to motivate students. You need to be strong in order to help others. Inner-strength helped me to never give up on myself or my dreams.
In what ways would you like to see readers’ minds expand with this interview?
I hope my experiences can inspire others to never give up and to always believe in themselves. For dancers of all ages, I hope this interview can help them understand that our job as artists is to give something to the audiences. We must continually search for the best way to reach more and more people. If art has helped me as much as it has, I know it can help so many others as well. I think that art should be one of the core subjects in school education from an early age and it should never be abandoned. I feel that art allows us to express ourselves better and to live more valuable lives. The arts allow us to see beyond what we have in front of us; they allow us to be inspired by our surroundings and to avoid being caged by the boundaries that extreme pragmatism and realism can create. Everyone needs to find something in life that motivates them and keeps them going through tough times, for me, that something is dance.
Check out Mimmo’s website at www.miccolismimmo.com or contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
He is on Instagram as @mimmo_miccolis_official
Featured Photo Credit: Morquecho Art
As a special treat for you all… here is the trailer to a documentary all about the amazing Mimmo Miccolis!
“A portrait of Washington Ballet choreographer Mimmo Miccolis, weaving scenes of his work and intimate rehearsals with the story of his journey from a small town in Southern Italy to the highest stages of international dance.”
Directed by Carola Mamberto
• Official Selection, Capitol Dance & Cinema Festival
• Official Selection, InShadow Lisbon Screendance Festival
• Official Selection, Austin Dance Festival “Dance on Film”
• Official Selection, Phoenix Dance Film Festival