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Classically contemporary Ballet Austin.

As the blistering Texas sun bakes the sidewalks outside the Ballet Austin studios, Stephen Mills choreographs in air-conditioned comfort inside the spacious facilities. A slim, soft-spoken man, he quietly demonstrates steps while concentrating on what he loves most: creating dances with the company he has called home for fifteen years. Ballet Austin celebrates bakes the sidewalks outside the Ballet Austin studios, its twentieth professional season April 4-6, with Touch, Mills's full-length, non-narrative contemporary ballet that illustrates the company's penchant for new, innovative works. While its peer institutions share similar repertoires of Petipa classics, a sprinkling of modern and Balanchine, and the obligatory Nutcracker, Ballet Austin is forging ahead with its own distinctive contemporary style. Located in the state's capital city, the company has enjoyed continuous growth and financial security. What's its secret to success? According to Mills, it's community involvement and a willingness to take calculated risks. "Austin embraced this company years ago," he explained. "My challenge as artistic director has been to focus on the creation of new work. We want to create our defining style; not just do a great regional version of Swan Lake when we have the capacity to do much more."

With Mills at its helm, Ballet Austin's signature style is evolving quickly. Touch blends postmodern moves on pointe with commissioned scores from two composers: Philip Hamilton's percussive music and Glover Gill's sensual tangos. With multimedia projections designed by Marc Rosenthal, a set of moving Plexiglas walls by Christopher McCollum, and Tony Tucci's expressive lighting, the new ballet explores human interaction and the need to be touched emotionally, spiritually, and physically.

The choreographing and staging of an original three-act abstract ballet is an admittedly bold move during a slow economy. Yet Ballet Austin's board remains undaunted as community support has increased the budget from $1.6 million to $4 million in five years. Simultaneously, Mills's reputation has blossomed nationally as his works are commissioned by companies such as Atlanta Ballet, BalletMet, Fort Worth Dallas Ballet, and Ballet Pacifica.

Recently, the company has gravitated toward Mills's full-length productions, including a stunning, contemporary Hamlet featuring Armani-style suits and sleek, metal sets; a more traditional Cinderella filled with untraditional pas de deux; and the witty A Midsummer Night's Dream. Mills's forte is contemporary ballets with classical technique, as evidenced by his winning a Rencontres Choregraphiques Internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis prize in 1998--the only American to win that year and the first North American ballet choreographer to be honored by the Paris-based competition.

Directing the Austin company is the culmination of a love affair that began in 1987, when Mills first joined the troupe as a principal dancer. His choreographic skills became apparent immediately, and since 1988, at least one Mills ballet has been performed each season, offering local audiences opportunities to follow his creative growth. During a highly publicized international search for a director in 2000, his track record of artistic excellence, community respect, and humility helped him win the job.

An accomplished musician who trained as a classical pianist, Mills refers to himself as "primarily a classicist" even though the bulk of his repertoire is contemporary. He has produced more than twenty-five classical, neoclassical, postmodern, and avant-garde ballets, all consistently musical and all grounded in classical technique.

"No matter the genre, his ballets maintain a strong emotional integrity," said Gina Patterson, a Ballet Austin dancer who has worked with Mills since 1988. "Stephen never lets you forget real people are performing onstage. Even his abstract dances are never `steps for steps' sake'; they breathe underlying themes such as love, loss, and humanity."

Although the Kentucky native is now a devoted Texan, Mills shuns provincialism in his work. His dedication to community surfaces organically, as in My Wall of Names, a dramatic, minimalist ballet that celebrates remembrance. Set to Mozart's Requiem, the contemporary ballet includes 300 names of deceased loved ones submitted by local citizens and projected onto the set during performances, literally creating a moving wall of names.

"Our passion is accessibility," said Cookie Ruiz, Ballet Austin's executive director. "We are constantly reminding the community that our art may be intangible, but our performers are real. Our dancers are part of Austin; they live and raise their families here."

Ruiz and Mills debunk ballet's elitist reputation and build bridges into the community by placing dancers in advertisements that show city landmarks and by sponsoring outreach programs. Community education is considered vital to the organization, not merely an extension service. "We start every performance by giving it away," Ruiz said. "Every dress rehearsal is a `Night of Community,' where we open our doors to charitable organizations."

Thanks to this open-door policy, audiences are invited from local Salvation Army stations, battered-women shelters, and children's advocacy groups. Some arrive without shoes and in varying stages of dress, but none are turned away. "It keeps us grounded," Ruiz said. "One audience was 2,500 children united by hunger; [they were] referrals from the local food bank. Their attendance was a gift you can't buy."

The company sponsors sixteen outreach programs ranging from curriculum-based dance education in public schools to an adult lecture series. Mills fields questions from audience members following each performance, and they are encouraged to submit questions, and opinions by email.

An example of lighthearted community involvement is the annual Nutcracker, in which local dignitaries ranging from computer magnate Michael Dell to Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong are invited to perform as Mother Ginger.

Since the dancers work as an ensemble with no designated principals or soloists, a strong sense of community permeates the troupe. And there are no barriers between performers and administrators; dancers have full access to administrative information, including a company handbook that defines everything from by-laws to the operating budget. Besides encouraging dancers to learn about the company's infrastructure, the administration also counsels retiring dancers about career transitions and job opportunities throughout the city.

The ballet will soon share the new $90 million Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Center for the Performing Arts with the local symphony and opera. In addition, the company's new $3.5 million home in downtown Austin will include a small theater, in which Mills says he hopes to host choreography showcases for emerging dance makers.

"The next generation of choreographers needs mentoring and a place to create work," Mills said. "Austin is my home, and I want to give something back to the city and company that have treated me so well."



3002 GUADALUPE ST., AUSTIN, TEXAS 78705 512.476.9051; FAX 512.472.3073


* Annual budget: $4 million. Operates as a nonprofit organization.

* 33 dancers

* 34-week contract

* Apprentice company: Ballet Austin II, 10 dancers, ages 18-23, recruited from Ballet Austin's Summer Intensive Program and Ballet Austin Academy Professional Division.

* Official school: Ballet Austin Academy is open to the public. Open classes include creative movement, pre-ballet, ballet, modern, jazz, character, and Pilates. Admission to the Pre Professional and Senior Division, and the Professional Division (for post-high school students or seniors), are by audition only.

* Scholarships' Based on merit. Other financial aid is available.

* Venue: University of Texas at Austin's Bass Concert Hall; in 2005, will move to the new Joe. R. and Teresa Lozano Long Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Austin.

* Touring: Limited annual touring, with recent performances at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and The Joyce Theater in New York City.

* Outreach: The C.O.R.E. (Community OutReach and Education) Program offers interactive educational opportunities to underserved youth in central Texas.

Ballet Austin was founded in 1956 as the Austin Ballet Society, a civic volunteer organization, by Barbara Carson. The company matured into the Austin Civic Ballet, then incorporated into a professional company, which was renamed Ballet Austin in 1982 under Artistic Directors Eugene Slavin and Alexandra Nadal. In 1989, Lambros Lambrou took the artistic helm and expanded the troupe from fourteen to twenty-four dancers. Stephen Mills was named resident choreographer in 1994, associate artistic director in 1999, and artistic director in 2000, adding his emphasis on original, contemporary choreography. The repertoire includes works by Mills, Balanchine, David Parsons, Petipa, Peter Pucci, Paul Vasterling, and Septime Webre.

Sondra Lomax is an Austin dance critic who contributes to DANCE MAGAZINE, Austin American-Statesman, and other publications.
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Author:Lomax, Sondra
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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