An Evening With Stephen Mills: Versatility and Anxious Warmth

Local Arts Reviews

An Evening With Stephen Mills: Versatility and Anxious Warmth

Bass Concert Hall,

February 5

At the ballet, when the dancers have bodies like Platonic forms, a coherent vision reigns, and the cosmos lines up just right, grace can become incarnate right up there onstage. Rubies, Roses, and Bolero, the Ballet Austin trio that associate artistic director Stephen Mills directed with aplomb last October, came close to this ideal. In it, Mills' Roses held its own next to Balanchine's Rubies as well as the eminently sexy Jose Greco II, who finished things off with the lunging, attitude-packed Bolero. Last weekend's An Evening With Stephen Mills, likewise in three parts, showcased Mills' choreography exclusively. And while it was decidedly less close to death-defeating perfection than Rubies, Roses, and Bolero, it was definitely a signature show -- a true mélange -- alternately languid and busy, gentle and bawdy.

The first piece, Blue, cast a crowd of dancers in pale -- surprise! -- blue. "Crowd" is right, too, as a fairly traditional, flighty cast lit around in a busy, loosely-in-sync pastiche of bodies. With a gaggle of dancers clad in old-fashioned bathing attire and plenty of attitude, the second act, Five Flights Up, was a posturing jazzy number and expressive enough to be straight out of some lost American musical. A lot of visual jokes evoked Mills' Roses of last fall. A languid, slouching, hip-bumping couple won for best characters, but there was a wealth of undulation, jumping on backs, manhandling, and picking up and/or throwing female dancers on and off stage. It must be fun to be a girl under Mills' choreography, because in these sillier pieces you get carried around kicking all the time.

The third work, My Wall of Names, was a tribute to dead friends. Set to Mozart's Requiem, complete with choir, it was so heavily dramatic it could have been Les Miserables, draped-cloth falling and all. Faux nudes trudged, rolled, and slowly intertwined until a wall of names was projected onto the backdrop. Then came a saga involving a man trapped in a red box, stairs to heaven, and much lowering and raising of dancers into and out of what may be life, may be hell. The final image was of a man and woman, her arm outstretched, ascending steps into the light, as the company, looking in their flowing garments like nothing so much as very busy ghosts, danced faster and faster below.

The program certainly showed off Mills' vast versatility as a choreographer: his more traditional abilities in the first piece, comedic stylings in the second, and dramatic ability in the third. Yet throughout it all, there reigned an anxious warmth. Why warmth? Because this is a popular man -- so profoundly nice, so reliably good at what he does, and so eager to please. Before the show, Mills stood in front of the curtain beaming and praising the applauding audience: "You guys are great." So why anxious? Well, the man's job is on the line. The much-lauded, internationally successful Mills has led the company since the Ballet Austin board decided not to renew the contract of former artistic director Lambros Lambrou last season and has put on a number of fine pieces, but in looking for a permanent artistic director, BA has pitted Mills against three other candidates hailing in turn from Houston, New York, and England.

An Evening With Stephen Mills could, in its multifacetedness, be read as a kind of "Look, I can do this, and this, and this ... " And do "this" he can; Mills is master of a certain flirty, chaotic aesthetic. For many in Austin, this is more than enough, but presumably some BA higher-ups have doubts. Mills is young, but maybe they want younger? Maybe Ballet Austin is trying to become less "nice," more hardcore? With the outcome of this typically icky backstage politics still pending, Austinites packed Bass Concert Hall, signaling that, while Austin may be growing and changing in more than just highways, Stephen Mills has served well and, whatever the result, remains beloved by many.

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