How Stephen Mills' Ballet Company is Putting Austin on the Map

June 2, 2008

Ballet Austin was founded in 1956, but has remade itself in the last six years. Since 2000, the company has hired a new artistic director; made its NYC debut at the prestigious Joyce Theater; performed twice at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC; purchased a new facility in Austin’s posh warehouse district; toured Slovenia and Italy at the invitation of the U.S. Embassy and swelled its annual operating budget to $4.2 million.


And, the company is still armed with an ambitious to-do list. This month, as the 24-member ensemble prepares for the first of what it hopes will be a biennial choreographer’s project, DS explores how this dynamic company has earned its place on the national stage.

Board of Education

One of the most significant events in BA’s recent history was the board’s 1999 decision to change artistic leadership. During the yearlong international search for an artistic director that followed, Stephen Mills, a former company member and BA’s resident choreographer from 1994 to 1999, was named interim director. “Our board went through an incredible education process,” Executive Director Cookie Ruiz says of that year. Divided into such roles as balletomane, classicist, record keeper and interviewer, the board committed itself to watching every video submitted by applicants, who hailed from nine different countries.


Sifting through hours of work turned the board into choreography connoisseurs, and they discovered that they had been looking for Mills himself all along. “The easiest thing to do was to pick the sexy person from another country,” says Ruiz. “The board did the hardest thing: They went around the world and realized the best thing was right here.”


As apt to choreograph to Arvo Pärt as to Shawn Colvin, Mills’ critically acclaimed contemporary ballets include such pieces as Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew and “One/ The Body’s Grace,” which won the Steinberg Award at the Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur International Choreographic Competition in Montreal. He has created more than 40 ballets for companies in the U.S. and abroad, having collaborated with diverse artists including the nine-time Grammy Award–winning Texas swing band Asleep at the Wheel and flamenco dancer José Greco. Mills’ Carmina Burana, which premiered last October in Austin, incorporated 200 vocal artists onstage.


For the dancers, working under such a prolific choreographer means ample opportunity to dance brand new work. “Having a ballet created on you is a wonderful experience,” says Jim Stein, who has performed roles in a number of Mills’ works over the years, including Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. In fact, it was a desire to dance Mills’ ballets that brought Stein back to Austin following a six-year stint with Atlanta Ballet. (He had previously danced with BA from 1994 to 1996.)


As he’s shifted from resident choreographer to director and dancemaker, Mills acknowledges that his choreographic process has shifted, too. “I’ve become less fixated on creating a masterpiece,” he says. “I used to go eight counts by eight counts. Now I come in and make a broad swath, then go back and focus in on things. I’ve also allowed the dancers to become more [a] part of the process than before, and a lot of that has to do with the team-building we’ve been doing filtering down into my process.”


Mills cites “all the usual subjects” as his choreographic influences—Balanchine, Forsythe and Kylián—and also credits Ulysses Dove. Mills himself has become an influence for company members, such as Gina Patterson, a seasoned company member and rising choreographer who has set works not only on BA and its second company, Ballet Austin II, but also on Ballet Pacifica, Hubbard Street 2 and Dayton Ballet. “Sometimes he’s a hard act to follow,” she says. “The integrity of his work sets a high example of what dance needs to be.”


Patterson and Mills’ professional relationship dates back to when they were both dancing in the company, and Mills was just beginning to find his choreographic voice, often using Patterson as his muse. Today, she is well on her way to establishing her own voice. Among her many accolades, Patterson, who also danced for Pittsburgh Ballet and Ballet Florida, was honored with the Choo-San Goh Award for Choreography in 2002 for Life Wind and the B. Iden Payne Award for Outstanding Choreography by the Austin Circle of Theaters for Trail of Tears—Walking the Choctaw Road.


Next month, BA will present a Director’s Choice program on the main stage titled “Evolution,” which juxtaposes Mills’ and Patterson’s early works with their newest creations: Patterson’s insideout, which was presented at Ballet Builders in 1999, and the debut of a new work set to music by Dmitri Shostakovich; and Mills’ Red Roses in contrast with a new piece set to music by Steve Reich.

Investing in Infrastructure

Since Mills’ appointment, the entire organization has been operating in the fast lane, having set lofty goals to raise the technique level of the company, broaden community awareness and build repertory. Another aspect of the new vision was to develop a more cohesive style, which has been accomplished in part through the implementation of a new syllabus in Ballet Austin Academy, the company’s affiliated school. The 1999 launch of BA II, headed by Associate Artistic Director Michelle Martin, has also helped to develop the look Mills is after. To date, six company members are BA II grads, and many BA II alumni have been hired into other professional companies.


BA II is a two-year apprentice program designed for dancers who have completed their traditional academy training but aren’t ready for the professional stage. BA II gives its 10 dancers (selected from the school’s summer program) the chance to train with the main company and perform their own repertory. They learn other skills as well, such as public speaking, interviewing and how to read a budget, and are required to intern in an administrative department, because, says Ruiz, “if by some tragedy their career is cut short, we don’t want [this industry] to lose them.” For the artistic staff, BA II also serves to determine whether a dancer is suited technically and personally for the main company.


Dancers may be more conversant in Mills’ movement vocabulary today than they were six years ago, but that doesn’t mean they’ve become physical carbon copies of one another. “If you look across the stage at my dancers, there’s no uniformity to body type,” says Mills. What they do have in common is athleticism. “They’re not wisps,” says Mills, “and I find that more interesting than having a dancer who fits into a body structure that maybe is more classically accepted, but who can’t dance.”

New American Talent/Dance

New American Talent/Dance, to be held February 16-19, is Mills’ way of providing emerging choreographers with a venue, a mentorship and the resources to create work. The process began last May, with a call for submissions from aspiring dancemakers. The application consisted of a 10-minute clip of previous work and a written proposal for a new piece that, if chosen, would be set on the company. The only stipulation was that each applicant had to be considered “emerging”—that is, a company could not have performed a body of his or her work. From a pool of 50 hopefuls, an internal panel selected six finalists “we thought were interesting and who had a vocabulary which we didn’t already have in our repertoire,” Mills says. Then, an outside jury—comprising Pointe magazine editor-in-chief and former Dance Theatre of Harlem star Virginia Johnson, Hong Kong Ballet Artistic Director John Meehan (former director of the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company) and Complexions Dance Company Co-Artistic Director Dwight Rhoden—chose three: Thang Dao, who is currently a master’s student at New York University; Sonya Delwaide, a Quebec native who has been creating work in California’s Bay Area; and Thadeus Davis, a NYC resident who has worked with such companies as Complexions and DTH. Each choreographer was given a two-week, 40-hour residency at BA under Mills’ mentorship to set the proposed new work, which could be in any discipline and use up to eight dancers.


Marketing the program presented a challenge. “What do you say to the audience?” asks Ruiz. “I’ve got three people no one has ever heard of because they’re new, they’re doing work that you’ve never heard of and, furthermore, I can’t tell you what it’s going to look like because they haven’t created it yet: How do you sell that?” The answer was to involve the audience more directly. At each performance, the audience will vote for their favorite piece, and the winning choreographer will receive $1,000.


“We’re calling on the audience to look with a heightened sense of responsibility,” explains Ruiz. “We’re trying to help the audience to have discriminating taste, and for a family, we’re saying to children, ‘You might like something different than Mom and Dad; we don’t have to feel the same about art, and that’s okay.’” In addition, at the final performance, Johnson, Meehan and Rhoden will be given $5,000 to divide among the choreographers as he or she wishes, whether it’s equally between all three artists or entirely to one.


Appreciating contemporary work isn’t a new concept for Ballet Austin audiences. According to company member Frank Shott, new work has long been well-received. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, they seem to appreciate [it] just as much, if not more, than the staples,” says Shott. “Austin is a unique environment because we have a lot of young people, and most of them seem to be progressive in what they’re interested in watching.”


Since Mills made his first ballet in Austin in 1989, local dance lovers have had the added perk of watching his style evolve. To his delight, during post-performance talkbacks, audience members have begun to compare various works. “That’s a position I never thought I’d be in,” says Mills, “that someone would have the opportunity to see enough of [my work] to make comparatives.”


Ballet Austin is located in a young, hip part of the city, dense with live music venues, galleries and hot spots, where the average age is 35. To capitalize on these aspects, BA’s new facility, slated for completed renovations this year, will incorporate a 300-seat studio theater that will open its doors on Austin’s biggest go-out nights. A former printing press, the warehouse-style building is located within walking distance of museums, the Austin Music Hall and trendy Sixth Street, which buzzes with club goers, music lovers, partyers and other revelers out to paint the town red. Part of the vision for the studio-theater is to offer inexpensive, BYOB “sets” of dance that patrons can check out between enjoying the live music held at the many surrounding locales. As a testing ground for experimental work by company members and other budding choreographers looking to make dances, it will also provide the public with a casual, more accessible environment in which to see dance than a full-scale main stage production.

Life Before Light, Life After Light

During the 2004-2005 season, the company embarked on a journey that for many was the seminal artistic achievement of their careers: Light/The Holocaust and Humanity Project. Having long thought about creating a work dealing with the Holocaust, Mills decided on September 12, 2001, that the time had come to engage the Austin community in a deeper conversation. To prepare, Mills, who isn’t Jewish, made a personal journey that included visits to seven former death camps in Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany, discussions with 25 survivors, time in Jerusalem and trips to five different Holocaust museums. “What he invested in that work, I don’t know many artists who have invested that much,” says Ruiz.


Prior to creating any choreography, the company underwent a nine-month education process that included book readings, film screenings and hearing survivor testimonies. “Everyone involved in the project—costume designers, Marley layers, lighting designers—everyone was here studying the subject matter,” explains Mills. The final component was a group trip to the Holocaust Museum in Houston. Then, the following morning, having done the work required for material with such scope, Mills and the dancers began to create the piece.


The resulting 75-minute ballet was devoid of such Nazi trappings as swastikas or jackboots. Instead, it followed one survivor through her personal experience. “Mr. Mills was very attentive to all the dancers and their needs, because he himself had been through [the journey] the previous summer,” says Stein. “It helped with his guiding us.” Adds Lisa Washburn, who is in her 12th season with BA and was one of the dancers cast to portray the lead role of the survivor, “We all came together and supported one another as a family, and we struggled with doing the research together.”

The project became a statewide discussion about intolerance, which Mills says he never expected a ballet company to be involved in. The Anti-Defamation League, the Holocaust Museum and numerous other local groups were involved in creating scores of events, including a public lecture series, a three-day workshop for teachers and an art exhibit. “But they all ended up at the performance,” says Mills, “so they were all having a conversation about this subject matter because of art.”


was such a milestone for the company that, according to Mills, it even affected how the organization does business. “It’s life before Light, and life after Light,” says Mills, noting that the biggest difference is in how company members interact with one another. “They are more apt to be helpful, to value opinion differently. I hate to be mushy about it, but it’s absolutely true.”


The project also set a new artistic standard. “It’s like we developed our artistic and intellectual muscles to [such] a degree that it was so anticlimactic that the next ballet we did was Swan Lake,” explains Mills. “That doesn’t diminish that Swan Lake is a beautiful ballet, but artistically, they’d just had this cathartic experience, and [Swan Lake was merely] learning steps.”


The future of Light is still being determined. Though Mills hopes to develop a small tour around it, the high level of collaboration and community-wide discussion required for the project necessitates extensive planning. “I have no interest in putting Light in a box and bringing it to a synagogue near you,” says Mills. “We created the project in order to educate people. Arts organizations complain all the time about people not thinking they’re culturally relevant, but I was determined that this project was going to show the relevance of art.”


After the project was complete, the superintendent of Austin’s public school system, created a character education program where a new value is introduced to the students every other month. “The first value was respect, and the person he chose from the community to introduce the value of respect was Stephen,” says Ruiz. “How powerful was that?”