George Harrison leveraged rock ‘n’ roll in the Concert for Bangladesh, Jon Stewart serves up comedy to benefit autism, and Stephen Mills uses ballet to fight bigotry and intolerance.
When Ballet Austin, founded in 1956, decided on a leadership change 12 years ago, they conducted an international search and wound up with a pool of 70 candidates qualified for the artistic director’s chair. After vetting the prospects, they chose a company male dancer from within who didn’t expect the nod. Stephen Mills still isn’t sure why he was chosen to helm the company, but his vision and energy speaks for itself.
After dropping his theatre scholarship to major in dance, Mills then moved to New York to hone his craft. On his professional journey, he has created over 40 original works for companies national and international, including the ballets of Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Shakespeare’s writing is just such genius,” Mills said. “The layering of stories and the way they all come together at the end…it’s just miraculous story telling… The morality tales within them are still very valid today.” Mills explained that once the narrative is developed, deciding whether the piece will be classical or contemporary, and the music is chosen, he gets into the studio with the dancers and they collaborate. “You just start to put steps together and you keep some and you discard others,” he explained, “keeping the story telling front and center.” For Hamlet, Mills uses the music of Philip Glass, for Shrew it’s Vivaldi and Scarlatti, and for Midsummer it’s Mendelssohn.
Mills’ deep sense of a bigger picture is evident. Internalizing the events of 911, Mills was conflicted. “We were at a place where we were about to send young people off to war and I felt like what I was doing was a little vain and unimportant in the scheme of things.”
He went on a search for some meaning that was larger than dance.
The spark for a new ballet that would become his magnum opus occurred when he met Naomi Warren, a Holocaust survivor living in Houston, Texas, associated with the Holocaust Museum there. “Naomi is one of those people of the opinion that if you have a voice and a platform, that you should use it. And she sort of threw down the gauntlet for me…that it was my responsibility to do something.”
In order to wrap his head around the enormity of the challenge, Mills spent three weeks in eight different camps in Eastern Europe, spoke with dozens of survivors, and spent time in Israel. After those experiences, he knew that the “something” needed to be bigger.
Mills posited, “When I decided that we were going to do this dance, it was clear that the dance alone wouldn’t be sufficient…it was going to be important to use it not just as an artistic platform, but as an educational platform.” Mills emphasized that when people license his ballet, he requires that they develop a project in theircommunity, the ballet acting as the anchor for the event. “I feel like it’s really important that the dance be one piece of myriad puzzle pieces that come together to talk about issues of hate, issues of bigotry, intolerance…whatever is happening in that community, using this dance to leverage conversation to address those issues.” Mills continued, “I’m not interested in showing the work separately.”
After two years of extensive research, in 2005, Mills led 13 organizations through a community-wide human rights collaboration that lasted 3 months and concluded with the world premiere of Mill’s masterwork, “Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project,” a contemporary ballet that exposes the dark belly of discrimination and the triumph of the human spirit.
When Mills premiered “Lights” in Austin, educators from the U. S. holocaust Memorial Museum, Elie Wiesel, and an outdoor art exhibit from Jerusalem comprised of 33 billboard size posters based on ‘Tolerance,’ positioned around the lake in downtown Austin, were in the thematic mix with the ballet. Mills said, “Over the course of 3 months, we tried to make it impossible for people not to brush up against the conversation in some way.”
The Austin Anti-Defamation League awarded Mills its 2006 Humanitarian Award for his groundbreaking work.
The music of composers Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, Evelyn Glennie and Michael Gordon underscore the ballet, which boasts twenty full-time professional dancers. Ballet Austin is the 15th largest classical ballet company in the country.
Each city that brings in “Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project” has a different look to their venture based on their own realities. City reps work in their individual human rights communities, in their school districts, with their leaders at the city and state level, with artists and other artistic organizations to develop the project and tailor it to their individual town. Since the program launched in Miami/Dade this past August 4th, 26 community organizations have participated, creating nearly 40 performances, activities, education programs and public forums.
Ballet Austin will present Mills’ masterpiece on November 3 and 4 at the Arsht Center, serving to conclude the unparalleled south Florida community-wide human rights initiative and launching the 2012-2013 Knight Masterworks Season – Miller Family Foundation Dance Series.
To see all the participating partners and events, and for ticket information, go to http://www.arshtcenter.org/light/