Director's Notes: Old-Fashioned Innovator

July 29, 2010
Ballet Austin’s Stephen Mills stretches his dancers and his audiences.

On the brink of insanity, Hamlet struggles with three alter-egos in a sequence that blends balletic precision with modern dance elasticity. By fusing the timeless with the contemporary,  Ballet Austin’s 2000 production of Shakespeare’s classic cemented the company’s reputation for bringing form-breaking movement to old-fashioned storytelling. It also put Artistic Director Stephen Mills on the map as both an innovator and a traditionalist.

The two may seem at odds, but they merge in Mills. As a student at Northern Kentucky University, Mills trained in classical ballet but went on to work primarily as a contemporary dancer with The Harkness Ballet and The American Dance Machine. When he became artistic director of Ballet Austin in 2000, after dancing with the company for 12 years, he broadened the repertoire beyond small mixed bills to produce full-length classical and contemporary works.

Mills, now 50, also threw out the ranking system. He wanted to give all the dancers a shot at a wider variety of parts. “Our artists know that if they work hard enough, they can perform principal roles,” he says. “It encourages dancers to continue to achieve.”

Twelve of Ballet Austin’s 20 current dancers have come through Ballet Austin II, a two-year apprentice program for less-experienced artists. The group of 10 dancers performs its own repertoire and augments the main company in larger ballets. “In the apprentice company, they’ll have spent time with us, so we know them well,” says Mills. “It makes for a good work environment.”

Mills is just as mindful of which choreographers will mesh with his dancers. Although the repertoire mainly consists of Mills’ own narrative works, he regularly programs Petipa and Balanchine ballets and seeks out artists still building on their initial impact, such as Viktor Kabaneiv and Thaddeus Davis. “Most companies are looking for who’s the new hot brand out there,” he says. “The mid-career artist gets lost. And my focus has been to expand that repertoire.”

To help foster these relationships, Mills developed the New American Talent/Dance Competition in 2006. With funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the biennial event gives three dancemakers 40 hours with the company to create a 20-minute piece. Ballet Austin dancers perform the pieces before a panel of judges and an audience (both get a say in which choreographers win the prize money). A few of the better-known finalists include Amy Siewart, Thang Dao and Dominic Walsh.

Having a steady stream of visiting choreographers has furthered another of Mills’ goals: to stretch his audience’s perception of what dance can be. Though the company’s hometown has a reputation for welcoming innovation, Mills has been careful to push gradually with the more confrontational pieces, such as his Light: The Holocaust & Humanity Project.

That’s not to say Mills plans to stop pushing any time soon, not with his audience and especially not with his dancers. Mills wants to ensure that the company consistently works on new material. “I choose ballets that will expand not just the dancers’ bodies, but their intellect as well,” says Mills. “Dancers are on their own path, and it’s my respon­sibility as a director to mentor them and help them achieve their goals, whether or not those goals are ultimately dancing.”