"Not once did I ever consider not doing this again,"… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
Nearly two years ago, performer Kel Millionie played the title role in an aerial drama about Icarus, who flew too close to the sun on wings made of wax. They melted, plunging the young man into the sea.
Using trapezes, harnesses and aerial cloths, Millionie and eight other performers from Daydreams & Nightmares Aerial Theatre explored the story of what happened to the mythical Greek youth after his precipitous plunge.
Millionie didn't realize that he himself was about to take his own trip to the bottom of the ocean.
"The first thing I remember is being in Shock Trauma. There was a gentleman sitting on my chest, and he was stapling my head together," Millionie, now 29, says of the freak Feb. 8 accident that nearly killed him.
The accident left the lifelong Baltimorean with just 25 percent of his vision. He can no longer drive. His depth perception is a thing of the past, so an act as simple as crossing the street can be a harrowing experience.
But none of this is going to prevent him from dangling upside down 10 feet above the stage floor at the Maryland Institute College of Art next weekend supported only by a cloth wrapped around his ankles. Friday marks the much-delayed debut of "12," a piece that Millionie created for his aerial company about the last dozen people left on Earth.
From an outsider's perspective, everything about the aerialist's chosen art form — bodies moving through three-dimensional space held by mere wisps of cloth — seems hazardous for anyone, let alone for a performer with limited vision.
Theaters are dark, and the stage of "12" is filled with 11 other people leaping and spinning at high speed, often accompanied by cumbersome and potentially lethal props.
The stage floor consists of an uneven layer of tiles that seemingly invites tripping. And that doesn't even take into account the shallow traps built into the stage floor, or the stage "rain" that could turn surrounding surfaces slippery.
Naturally, Millionie, the artistic director of Daydreams & Nightmares (DNA) Theatre, designed the set himself. (He works as the technical director for MICA's two theaters, and every member of the troupe he has assembled is affiliated with the college.)
"Not once did I ever consider not doing this again," Millionie says. "There is something to be said for being able to make an audience shiver. There is magic in evoking that feeling with trapezes and aerial cloths and balancing."
It's not that Millionie is a daredevil; far from it. Company members talk about how insistent he is that safety procedures be followed by him, and by everyone else.
Because "12" is loosely inspired by Ayn Rand's dystopian novel, "Anthem," Millionie seems to identify with the hero's can-do attitude and determination to surmount every formidable obstacle in his path.
"One character breaks out of his shell and saves the world," he says. "''Anthem' is about how we can survive as humans."
Like all of Millionie's pieces, "12" has no dialogue, though the action is accompanied by an original score composed by David Crandall. As an artistic director, Millionie excels at creating compelling stage pictures.
In one scene, a dozen bodies form an interlocking, horizontal grid of arched necks and straining calves interspersed with tiny pockets of air created by spread fingers or the crook of an elbow.
Later, four women cocooned in giant, brown hammocks swing gently above the stage floor, undulating and kicking against the sides of the pods.
For a time, it seemed as though "12" might never be performed for an audience.
"We were all concerned about Kel coming back after the accident," company member Elle Brande, 21, says. "But he wouldn't let us be concerned for him. Now it's easy for us to forget that he ever was injured. When something goes missing, we all joke that it's in Kel's blind spot."
Though "Anthem" is about the theme of regeneration, "12" wasn't created in response to Millionie's accident. In fact, the troupe was rehearsing the piece when the aerialist was injured.
Most people, upon hearing about a head injury that catastrophic — Millionie broke 28 bones in his head, had a near-lethal build-up of pressure in his skull and lost some memory — occurred during a flying mishap.
The reality is far more mundane, and in a way, even more frightening: Millionie was walking across the floor inside a kind of crate being used as a prop when he suddenly stumbled.
"The prop was top-heavy, and we think he got knocked in the back of the head by a wooden cross-beam," says performer Catherine Yard, 22, who was in the theater at the time.
Doctors later found a bruise on the back of Millionie's head, and if the performer was temporarily knocked unconscious, that might explain why he didn't instinctively raise his hands or twist to the side to break his fall.
Instead, he toppled forward, fracturing his skull first on a two-by-four on the bottom of the crate, and then on the concrete floor.