Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Risen From the Ashes

By Robert Faires

MARCH 22, 1999:  When Austin has a winner, everybody knows it, right? The local newsrags trumpet the achievements of the hometown champion in 40-point boldface type, area news jocks and other microphone wranglers breathlessly repeat the victor's name and recount the circumstances of the triumphant deed, municipal merchants use their businesses' signs to pay tribute to the woman or man of the hour, and city politicos confer civic laurels on the honor winner. For weeks after the event, you can catch the accomplishment being dissected detail by detail in print, on the airwaves, and around water coolers from one end of Austin to the other. Sometimes there's even a ticker-tape parade. We're still enough of a small town that any time an Austinite scores a national coup, we want to crow. And we do, right?

Well, you might think so, but the truth is that not all national coups are created equal. The ones rooted in sports or mass culture can generate the kind of civic buzz described above; snag a Heisman and you're assured of a local love fest within the media and without; score a lucrative deal with a La-La Land movie studio or a Big Apple record label, or maybe even some computer-gaming conglomerate, and you can be confident of at least 15 minutes of celebrity in the capital city. However, when it comes to culture a little less pop in nature, you may not be accorded quite so much acclaim. Proof of this can be found within shouting distance of the university campus that has been and still is aflutter over national gridiron star Ricky Williams. In a firehouse-turned-dance studio on the Drag, an international choreography star toils in relative obscurity. Area balletomanes may recognize the name of Stephen Mills and duly appreciate the achievements of the artist to whom it belongs, but to the large majority of Austinites it could just as easily be the name of the guy serving up your monster 'ritas at the Hula Hut last night. This, despite his being the only American to earn a place in the sixth Recontres Chorégraphiques Internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis.

Stephen Mills in Ashes

If anyone qualifies as one of Austin's unsung heroes, it's Stephen Mills. This dancer and dance creator has been helping enrich the city's cultural scene for a dozen years, as a principal dancer with Ballet Austin (BA) from 1987 to 1992 and as the company's resident choreographer from 1992 to 1996. He left the company for two years but continued to work with area dancers and present works locally. This season, he returned to BA as resident choreographer, creating a full-length ballet for the company and contributing dances to three of BA's other programs. His work has been widely praised for its vigor, its electricity, its playfulness, its sensuality. While Mills is more than capable of working in a purely classical vein, his work is more often characterized by flourishes of gesture or energy that break through the cool, stoic facade of the stereotyped ballet. His dances -- even the most traditional in form or setting, as was his Cinderella -- pulse with a sense of the immediate, the contemporary. Stuffy ballet it ain't.

Mills' reputation as a choreographer was secure even before last year, but his participation in the International Choreographers' Gathering confirmed beyond question that his work is on par with the world's finest. As the name implies, the Recontres Chorégraphiques Internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis is a gathering of choreographers drawn from across the globe. It is held every two years in Bobigny, France, and part of the proceedings for the event is a performance of works that have been selected through a global competition. More than 30 platforms are held around the world to judge works for the Bobigny gathering, and for the most recent round of platforms, only three were held in the United States: There was one in in New York City, one in Los Angeles, and one right here in Austin, hosted by our own Sharir Dance Company. Mills entered the competition with Ashes, a piece he created for eight dancers. The work was chosen to proceed to the next level, and when the results from all 30-plus platforms were in, Ashes was the only piece by an American choreographer that had advanced all the way to Bobigny. Mills and seven dancers from Ballet Austin flew to France in June of 1998 and performed the piece before an international audience. In a just world, the group's return flight to Austin would have been met at the airport by hordes of proud and appreciative citizens.

Chris Hannon as Puck
Ah well, it isn't all that uncommon for a prophet to be without honor in his own country -- or for dancers as a class to be treated by the public at large with an apathy bordering on numbness. Still, there's no reason to tolerate the status quo or keep perpetuating it, especially when it seems to go against the nature of the city to embrace its own and hold the best of them up for all the world to see. So, listen up, Austin: We have a bona fide world-class choreographer among us, and you have the opportunity in the next two weeks to see for yourself the kind of work that won him a coveted place among the planet's premier dancemakers. Think of it like Heisman Ricky coming to your neighborhood park and offering to strut his stuff in a little exhibition football game. Would that not be worth taking a little time out to see?

Now, granted, A Midsummer Night's Dream is not A Turkey Day's Drubbing of the Aggies by the Horns. Still, if you can appreciate the power and grace with which a running back charges through a defensive line and hightails it for daylight, skillfully, even elegantly, evading tackle after tackle, you're more than halfway to being a ballet fan, my friend.

For novices to Mills' work and unabashed aficionados alike, the Dream presents an opportunity to see Stephen Mills working with all pistons firing. The piece, drawn from the familiar play by William Shakespeare, is a story ballet, which gives Mills a throughline for his dances, incitement to be clean and compact, to reveal character -- something at which Mills is adept -- as efficiently as possible. But while the work is classical, it's far from dry. The ballet spins around the same comic complications as the play: A quartet of young Athenians suffering through a rather convoluted romantic entanglement leave town for a nearby wood, where they run afoul of a mischievous fairy in possession of an enchanted love juice; he uses it on two of the youths, intending to resolve the four into two happy couples, but his efforts manage to make the romantic snarl more tangled than before, resulting in catty squabbles, mad chases, and comical duels. Meanwhile, the love juice is also placed on the eyes of the Queen of the Fairies, who straightaway falls in love with a poor rustic whose head has been replaced with that of an ass. Mills has proven, most recently in his Cinderella of the season past and his short work The Naughty Ones, reprised in Ballet Austin's most recent program, Kisses, that he has the sensibility and ability to evoke comedy in dance. In fact, portions of The Naughty Ones might almost have been inspired by the Dream. The sections of the dance that channel the raucous, syncopated rhythms of hardcore swing erupt in a physicality that's all hormones in high gear. As if that weren't enough, the piece also holds a connection to Mills' background and expertise in dance. Among the leading roles in Mills' years on the stage are many from the repertoire of George Balanchine. As Balanchine created the modern ballet of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the BA production allows Mills to follow in the footsteps of the master dancemaker whose work he knows so well -- and perhaps to draw on his spirit in the process.

Mills rehearses with Moffat (Oberon).

In a curious bit of synchronicity -- or perhaps some cosmic foreshadowing -- it was very near the true Midsummer Night -- June 21 -- when Stephen Mills performed Ashes for the Recontres Chorégraphiques Internationale, an event that might easily be described as a dream come true. In the months since, Mills has been accepted back in the fold of the company to which he has given so much and proven that he still has more to give it. There are those who would consider being able to go home again a dream of sorts, too. Now, he is applying his artistry to a Shakespearean dream. That suggests that the past year for Mills has been one dream after another -- an enviable kind of existence. For such a person, I can only hope the dreams continue, and if it's not saying too much, to hope that this is the part of the dream where more people around him awake to find what an exceptional artist they have in their midst.

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