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Art of the dance

Bach project aims to meld classical with modern

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

The painting is moody yet irreverent.

Two modern men dressed in preppy suits stand on a rock outcropping amid a surging sea under an extravagantly dramatic sky. One reads a book titled "Truth," the other reads "Beauty."

With its quotidian 21st-century figures positioned in a stereotypical art historical setting and pondering one of aesthetic philosophy's age-old questions , the painting — "Loophole" by California-based Wes Hempel — is a rewriting of the artistic canon. It's also an artistic dialogue that extends across the centuries — a 21st-century artist re-visioning art history in contemporary terms.

And it's the nucleus of Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills' newest ballet, "Truth & Beauty: The Bach Project," which debuts this weekend at the Long Center in three performances.

Art frequently serves as Mills' muse. In 2008 he created the innovative, critically acclaimed "Cult of Color: Call to Color" based on the vibrant, complex paintings of Houston-based artist Trenton Doyle Hancock. (The nationally recognized ballet is now available for viewing to Time Warner Cable digital cable On Demand customers.)

"Truth & Beauty: The Bach Project" is the first new full-length ballet Mills has created since "Cult of Color."

An avid collector of contemporary art, Mills has "Loophole" hanging in his downtown Austin home. It was the first major work he and partner Brent Hasty acquired several years ago. And while they have since built their collection to include many edgy, international artists — Kehinde Wiley, Andres Serrano. Conrad Bakker, Fahamu Pecou — "Loophole" has always had fairly prominent display in the couple's home. Currently it hangs in their dining room.

Gradually, the painting became the cynosure for several other things that were tossing around Mills' mind: chiefly, the music of J.S. Bach and Plato's philosophical inquiries into the nature of love, truth and beauty.

"I love Bach's music," says Mills, who trained to be a pianist throughout his teens and counts the composer as one of his major artistic influences. "But how do you as a choreographer add to his genius? How could you possibly take on Bach and say anything new?"

Hence, Mills set out to make "Truth & Beauty: The Bach Project" a series of interpretations and improvisations on Bach, "Loophole" and the notions of truth and beauty.

For an artistic assist, Mills called in pianist Michelle Schumann and composer Graham Reynolds. Schumann, who is artistic director of the Austin Chamber Music Center, will lead a chamber ensemble in Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 2 and also perform solo piano works by Bach and Philip Glass.

For the finale, Reynolds has reimagined Bach's Suite in A Minor — originally written for harpsichord — in a percussion-driven big-band style. Reynolds' ensemble will play just in front of the stage on the partially raised orchestra lift in the Long Center's Dell Hall. "I couldn't hope to compete (with Bach), so I didn't try to," says Reynolds. "What I did try to do, using fragments of his harpsichord Suite in A Minor, was to transform, reset and respond to his ideas in my own voice."

This is the second time Mills and Reynolds have collaborated; Reynolds wrote the music for "Cult of Color."

Mills divided his newest ballet into three distinct sections, essentially three separate ballets with a through-line connecting the trio. He kept the artist development of it loose, moving from section to section as he created the choreography.

In the first, the changing drama of the sky in Hempel's painting is subtly evoked via rear-screen video projection while Bach's brilliant Baroque formalities are celebrated in Orchestral Suite No. 2. "I chose (that particular piece) because Bach wrote a lot of dances of his time into his music," says Mills. "His music is very complicated, but then there are these popular Baroque dances like minuets and sarabandes that emerge. And we still dance to many of the same rhythms today."

In the second section, "Angel of My Nature," Mills strove to understand how Bach's achievements ricocheted through the centuries and influenced other composers. An obvious example was Glass, whose minimalist style is effectively a modern distillation of Bach's contrapuntal harmonies and rhythms. Mills has used Glass' music numerous times for his dances. "I guess it's kind of natural that eventually I'd bring the two together in the same ballet," he says.

And for the final section, "Bounce," the play between Bach and modern music, the riffing between the cultural canon and our contemporary times erupts. Marching band Bach and ballet? Sure.

As Mills sees it, so much of the artistic process is about having a dialogue with the artists and artworks of all disciplines that came before you (Bach, Baroque dances, Romantic paintings) and then re-visioning what they did through your here-and-now lens (the music of Glass, a painting by Hempel, contemporary ballet).

A mashup of several centuries of art and music and dance, "Truth & Beauty: The Bach Project" is nonetheless about finding complementary threads that reach through the past to the present.

"What was relevant" in the past, says Mills, "is relevant today."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699