Ballet Austin gets up close and personal in mixed repertory program
Stephen Mills premieres two new short ballets.
Artistic inspiration springs from myriad founts.
Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills invariably draws from art and music.
Last year, Mills mined a compelling painting in his own collection — and the music of J.S. Bach — to create his three-part "Truth & Beauty: The Bach Project."
This year, he tapped an entirely new well: poetry.
For "Silence Upon Silence," Mills plumbed the romantic yet strikingly modernist poetry of e.e. cummings.
"Silence" is one of two short ballets Mills choreographed for the "Studio Theater Project" opening this weekend and staged in Ballet Austin's intimate 275-seat Austin Ventures Studio Theater, where the audience is just a few feet away from the stage.
The company will also premiere Mills' "Luminaria," and dance "Lasting Imprint," a piece by New York choreographer Nicolo Fonte.
Mills first encountered cummings years ago while a senior in high school. And the poet's direct yet idiosyncratic style burned an impression that continued to percolate in Mills' imagination. The dancemaker chose four poems and relished the challenge.
"I decided to use poetry to create movement precisely because I've never used text as a starting point before," Mills said recently. "As an artist, you're always looking for things that will send you in a new direction."
For each poem, Mills created a duet, with the four duets culminating in a finale with all eight dancers. Each duet is a movement metaphor for a different facet of a relationship. Mills set his dances to Brahms' Ballades, a lyrical four-part romantic piece for solo piano.
At a rehearsal for "Silence," the dancers move through Mills' modern ballet choreography. Couples embrace in beautifully angular and unexpected ways, then break away in fluid moves. The pattern repeats with variations as the four couples intertwine, creating sinuous lines.
"(Cummings') poems are so sensitive, sensual and beautiful. They're very emotion-laden, and they really talk about people coming together and wanting the same things from each other — to be loved and cared for," Mills explains.
That thoughtful mood undergoes change in "Luminaria," Mills' second new dance on this weekend's program.
The City of San Antonio commissioned the Ballet Austin choreographer to create a new work for its recent "Luminaria" festival. (The company performed in San Antonio March 12.)
Mills turned to a source that frequently inspires him: music. Last fall, a certain sound intrigued him.
An interview on NPR with noted Spanish composer and musician Jordi Savall piqued Mills' interest. A champion of Baroque music, Savall teamed up with Mexico's early music group Tembembe Ensamble Continuo of Guanajuato, Guanajuato, to record "El Nuevo Mondo," a CD of "son" music, a 16th-century dance music form that flourished, and changed, in 17th- and 18th-century Mexico after Spanish colonization. Savall and his collaborators blended the historical scores with modern son scores to create a sound that is both ancient and contemporary.
Mills did likewise with the movement.
In a spirited mode, five couples weave through circular patterns across the stage, their steps and gestures completely those of modern ballet, yet somehow infused with just traces of traditional courtly Spanish dance and Mexican folk dancing.
"Luminaria" is a cultural, creative mash-up, Mills-style: vestiges of the familiar, wrapped in the recent.
Studio Theater Project
When:8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays through April 3
Where:Austin Ventures Studio Theatre, Ballet Austin, 501 W. Third St.