All That Dance Can Be: Ballet Austin’s Mind Opening New Season

Ballet Austin’s artistic director Stephen Mills remembers the time from his early professional career when concert dancers fell into one of two camps: ballet or modern. “And I kind of hated that,” he recalls. Thirsty for growth, as a young dancer Mills seized performing opportunities in musical theater and modern dance, as well as in his beloved ballet. “I studied tap dance, I studied modern, I studied anything anyone would give me an opportunity to do,” he explains.

Mills retains this inclusive artistic approach, and it informs his leadership of Ballet Austin. Graduating from company dancer to artistic director in 2000, Mills is acclaimed for innovative choreography, programming, and collaborative productions. Less known to audiences is his musical expertise. Throughout his school years Mills was a serious pianist who aspired to a career in professional classical music. That would have occurred, “had I not found something as beautiful as ballet,” he muses.

Luckily for dance audiences Mills did find ballet, and his innovation, eclecticism, extreme musicality, and artful collaboration are all on display in Ballet Austin’s 2024-2025 performance season at the Long Center in Austin. In addition to Mills’ dances, the company also performs works by internationally renowned choreographers Jessica Lang and Christopher Wheeldon.

Opening the season September 27-29 is Belle: A Tale of Beauty and the Beast. Having premiered in 2017, Belle is a retelling of the classic fairytale. The production combines Mills’ sensuous movement invention with Michael B. Raiford’s evocative costume and set design. Graham Reynolds’ haunting score was created in close collaboration with Mills. He explains, “Graham will make a skeleton of something and then we will talk about it. Then, I will ask him to further develop certain aspects of it.” This process works for both choreographer and composer as Reynolds, “trusts me, and I trust him.”

From Dec. 6-23 Ballet Austin’s sixty-second annual program of The Nutcracker runs for fifteen performances. Mills first presented his version of the holiday staple in 2000, and while it is a Ballet Austin tradition, it is not a museum piece. The sets and costumes have changed over the years, which gives the production a fresh appeal. Additionally, Mills continually revamps his choreography. “Every year I try to take something and completely change it. So, over the course of ten years or so, everything will be different. I try to move dancers around in different roles to give them something new to think about as they are performing it,” he notes. Reconfiguring this ballet is no easy task for a cast of nearly 100 (including children from Ballet Austin’s Academy), but Mills manages with finesse. What remains the same for this production is the inclusion of live accompaniment of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s score by the Austin Symphony Orchestra.

The company celebrates Valentine’s Day Weekend with a trio of dances in the “Heart’s Desire” program Feb. 14-16. Longing and passion are at the heart of Mills’ Desire, which also features costumes designed by the choreographer. This duet, set to Arvo Pärt’sachingly beautiful Spiegel im Spiegel, has been performed to adulation in New York, Washington DC, Paris, and Puerto Rico before making its return to Austin this season.

Wheeldon’s Polyphonia is an explosive non-narrative ballet set to a collection of György Ligeti’s intricate solo piano pieces. This work premiered on the New York City Ballet in 2001, and its technical demands test the dancers’ limits.  The ballet “is one of the first works Chris (Wheeldon) made, and I think it is one of the most beautiful works he made. It is a curious piece—the way he handles the movement on top of the music—it is complex and so very interesting in so many ways,” Mills notes.  Holly Hynes’ spare costume design frames the ballet’s virtuosic movement and musical score.

Lang’s ZigZag, a high-spirited, joyous ballet, premiered on American Ballet Theatre in 2021, and Ballet Austin is the first company outside of ABT to perform it. Mills predicts, “This ballet with music by Tony Bennett is just so much fun, and the costumes by Wes Gordon of Carolina Herrera (fashion house) are so cute, I think the audience is going to have a great time with it!” Set on fourteen dancers outfitted in retro costumes, the dance features a variety of musical tracks sung by Tony Bennett, including a duet sung by Bennett and Lady Gaga.

Two choreographic world premieres comprise the program “Love’s Gentle Spring” March 28-30. Mills is setting one ballet to Antonin Dvořák’s “String Quartet No.12 in F Major, Op.96” and the other to Bryce Dessner’s “Concerto for Two Pianos.” Still in an ideation stage, the ballets’ titles are yet to be determined. “They are untitled because it is my way to stay flexible. I have ideas, but I don’t want to nail them down until I get the dancers into the studio,” he explains.  And once in the studio, “the dancers are going to be highly collaborative in this process. The luxury of being the choreographer in residence here is that I can grab people at any time and my work happens over time.”

Rounding out the season is a traditional audience favorite enhanced by Mills’ contemporary sensibilities. Mills’ 2001 Romeo & Juliet returns to the Long Center Mother’s Day Weekend (May 9-11). Tommy Bourgeois’s costume and scenic design exquisitely place the ballet in fifteenth century Verona, and the Austin Symphony Orchestra brings to life Serge Prokofiev’s intense score. Mills’ dramatic choreography demands passionate performances from the dancers.  “Romeo & Juliet is one of the most endearing love stories in history. The music is gorgeous, the movement style is my creation, but our performance leans heavily on the acting aspect.”

Presenting diverse and dynamic programming is a crucial part of Ballet Austin’s mission according to Mills. “As a cultural organization, our job is not just to entertain, but to open up minds to all that dance can be.”