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Backstage: Tara Mullins brings interdisciplinary expression and collaboration to the dance floor

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In an unusual office — mirrors paneling an entire wall, a matte black floor scuffed from quick feet and decorated with old tape — Tara Mullins watches on as her company of modern dancers works with a guest instructor in the Carmichael 2307 dance studio.

“Look at these ladies, they’re so amazing; they give me so much,” Mullins said.

For two years, Mullins has been the director of the NC State Dance Program, taking over after director and mentor Robin Harris retired. In a short time leading the program, Mullins has been acknowledged for her dedication to teach her passion — dance — with a nomination for the Office of Faculty Development’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year award.

“It’s great to have the arts represented in that way,” Mullins said. “A lot of times people don’t know that we have such a vibrant arts life on this campus, so to have that [nomination] just brings more attention to the arts.”

Mullins is passionate about the NC State dance program, which she admired along with previous director Harris’ artistry since 1993 when she saw her choreograph for the first time. Hired as assistant director of dance in 2012, the two worked together until Harris retired in 2016 and Mullins filled her shoes. According to Annalise Boese, a third-year studying English literature and program dancer, the transition has been very successful.

“She’s taken it on and made it her own,” Boese said. “She’s made [modern] dance more attemptable and understandable to those who don’t understand modern. She has a high caliber of artistic work and she’s brought her own philosophy to the program […] a philosophy of meaningful, purposeful art.”

Mullins performed professionally in Washington, D.C. following her studies, but she much prefers to choreograph and watch her pupils put their hearts into something that previously existed as mere vision. Her productions exhibit an elaborate collaboration between her and her 24 dancers, and sometimes even other arenas of the university.

There is no dance degree offered by NC State, but Mullins said she sees that as an advantage. Her dancers are also students, studying everything from environmental engineering to animal science to political science.

“I really enjoy working with colleagues all across campus, finding new ways to incorporate movement and dance,” Mullins said. “I’m trying to have them realize that it is more than we think; it’s more than just a hobby.”

In 2017, the company performed “Dancing Chemical Reactions,” which beautifully portrayed the movement of chemical reactions. And beginning in 2015, the company worked on a research project called “STEM Majors, Arts Thinkers,” showcasing the diversity of educational backgrounds within dance, which resulted in a paper being published last year.

“Her choreography is very meaningful in a way that she doesn’t do things just to do them,” Boese said. “Everything she does is backed in research and emotional content. It’s very even-layered.”

A great deal of Mullins’s other choreographies are inspired by her Sicilian heritage. It’s not a place that she calls home, but it’s where her grandparents did and that moves her to pay tribute to the relationship, whether distant, she has with her ancestors. One dance she choreographed for the NC State company was called “Against the Railing” and was about her grandmother immigrating as a teenager to the United States.

Before finding her place at NC State, Mullins attended James Madison University and Arizona State University, where she graduated in 1996 and 2003, respectively, with a bachelor’s degree in dance and a master’s of fine arts in dance degree. It wasn’t all jazz hands and toe tapping.

“We danced a lot,” Mullins said. “We were in the studio [until] almost 10 o’clock at night, for both degrees; technique class twice a day — ballet, modern or jazz — then we took classes like anatomy, kinesiology and lighting for costume design.”

Mullins’ focus as a graduate student was in dance and community partnerships, which led her to a final project called the “Hero Project,” which worked to integrate arts programming with homeless teenagers.

Naturally, her focus on community-oriented arts moved her to found her own dance company after graduating from ASU. The Z. Mullins Dance Company ran from 2006 until 2011, doing projects with elementary schoolers and the greater community in North Carolina, Florida and Virginia.

Mullins’ ambition, passion and dedication has driven her abundant career as a dancer and dance educator, even though she didn’t truly start training in dance until she was in high school and enrolled in classes at the local studio. Her fall into dance was quick, but without hesitation, and she felt supported along the way. Now, she hopes to continue providing that same support to young dancers at NC State as they take on the world as both people and artists.

“Some of them will go on and continue to dance, some will go on to perform, some will just be arts activists, and some will encourage dance for their families,” Mullin said. “I just really love being in here with them and creating work.”

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