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Mills melds music and movement with Mozart tribute

Staff Writer
Austin 360

As the final notes are heard at this year's Austin City Limits Music Festival, live music hardly wafts away from the city's creative landscape.

Music spans many art forms. It always has.

Just ask Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills. On Sept. 30, he'll premiere "The Mozart Project," his latest collaborative production sourced in and inspired by music.

Dance might be most basically understood as bodies organized to move through space and time. And from the beginnings of the dance form in the Renaissance, ballet was codified through its companionship with music.

Like most ballet-makers, Mills typically starts his creative process in music.

For his latest endeavor, Mills — who trained as a pianist before he began studying dance as a teen — tapped the talents of Austin's favorite alt classical composer, Graham Reynolds, along with the noted pianist Michelle Schumann and the far-flung creativity of DJ Spooky, aka Paul D. Miller, an internationally recognized composer and sound artist known for his genre-bending output.

And, oh yeah — Mills also tapped into the talents of Mozart, a longtime favorite of the choreographer.

The sublime perfection of Mozart's phrasing, the complex and intriguing rhythms, the alternately joyful and serious moods that ripple throughout — all are attributes, Mills points out, that make Mozart still one of the most performed and enjoyed classical composers.

"Mozart is live music for me — it's still here, in the present. Really, all genres (of music) are living music," says Mills. "I just wish that more people didn't shy away from thinking in that way."

In fact, getting past Mozart's familiarity — and genius — proved the biggest challenge for Mills. "Part the conundrum (with this project) was finding something within Mozart that audiences might not already have lots of associations with or impressions of," says the choreographer. "Mozart's music is so perfect, the challenge was thinking of what I could bring to it that would be new."

Using his signature style of contemporary ballet, Mills created three new short, yet related dances, each fitted to a different interpretation of Mozart.

For the first dance, Schumann, along with a string quartet, will play Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12, a lesser-known and very intimate piece. For the second, Reynolds and his ensemble, the Golden Arm Trio, will play Reynolds' reinterpretation of the concerto, a suite of duets for electrified violin and cello that, the composer says, "will be looped, sampled, and highly affected with delays, distortions, phasers and more."

For the final dance, Miller, along with his turntables and synthesizers, will join the string quartet for a riffing on Mozart's Serenade No. 13 for strings in G, also known as "Eine kleine Nachtmusik," arguably one of the classical repertoire's most frequently co-opted, performed and paraphrased compositions.

Mills did something similar with Bach in early 2010. For "Truth & Beauty: The Bach Project," Mills had Schumann perform selections by Bach along with music by Philip Glass, the minimalist composer whose creations are influenced by the Baroque master. Likewise, Reynolds offered his reinvention of Bach's sound in an original piece.

Some who filled the seats at the Long Center for "Truth & Beauty" were clearly drawn from Reynolds' dedicated following of alt and indie music fans.

Similarly, Mills took note of the audience at Hogg Auditorium when in 2009 Miller performed his multimedia symphonic collage, "Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica."

"It was mostly a young crowd," remembers Mills. "And yet what Paul (Miller) was doing was so clearly rooted in classical music." Indeed — Miller used British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Sinfonia Antarctica" as a musical starting point.

The history of the musical canon, after all, might be written simply as one composer reacting to and riffing on composers who came before.

Ballet Austin bested itself last season, Mills' 10th at the helm. The 2010-2011 season saw 42,257 paid attendees and $1,992,430 in ticket sales, both record-breaking numbers for the 53-year-old company. Still, Mills hopes "The Mozart Project" intrigues young fans of Reynolds and Miller, along with Mozart-philes and balletomanes. A little musical — and artistic — cross-pollination would be ideal.

"I wish people's music literacy were broader and more open," says Mills. "Music is just music. It's organized sound."

Same of ballet — it's organized movement. Though it's movement organized beautifully to music.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'The Mozart Project'

When: 8 p.m. Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 3 p.m. Oct. 2

Where: Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive

Cost: $12-$75

Information: 476-2163, www.balletaustin.org