Dance of the Prodigal Son

Talking With Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills

Dance of the Prodigal Son
Photo By José L. Medina

A youth leaves home to seek fulfillment in the wide, wide world, only to find that that fulfillment was there at home all along. You know this story. You've most likely heard it told again and again; it belongs to many. It's the story of the Prodigal Son. It's the story of Dorothy Gale. And it's the story of Stephen Mills. In 1987, Mills made his artistic home in a former firehouse on Guadalupe Street, the building housing the studios of Ballet Austin, and over the next nine years, did a significant amount of "growing up" there: first as a principal dancer, then as a dancemaker. His work became so highly valued that in 1992 he was named Ballet Austin's resident choreographer. But after a while, Mills felt constrained by the walls of the firehouse, and at the end of the 1995-96 season, he left the ballet to pursue a career as a freelance choreographer. At the time, his departure seemed permanent. Mills was engaged by dance companies across the country and beyond -- Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Dayton Ballet, Sarasota Ballet of Florida, Ballet Pacifica, Dance Kaleidoscope, Ontario Ballet, the Icelandic Ballet Company in Reykjavik, Cuballet in Havana -- and had as much work as he could handle. And he was distinguishing himself with the kind of honors choreographers dream about: two invitations to take part in the Ballet Builders showcase at Lincoln Center; a place in the sixth Recontres Chorégraphiques Internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis, for his dance Ashes. But just as his rising star was peaking, allowing Mills to go almost anywhere in the dance world, he asked to return to Ballet Austin, to come home.

The move was fortuitous for Mills and the company. He was welcomed back to Ballet Austin, reinstated as resident choreographer, and within a year named associate artistic director. Following the board's decision not to renew the contract of artistic director Lambros Lambrou at the end of the 1998-99 season, Mills was named interim artistic director. He held that post while the board conducted an international search for a new artistic director, and in February of this year was chosen to keep the post permanently. Now, Mills is set to lead Ballet Austin into a new era, one in which the company hopes to develop a touring arm and to bring choreographers from around the world to Austin, to show new work.

Mills, so soft-spoken and self-effacing, so generous in his praise of others, seems an unlikely candidate for the role of the rebellious Prodigal Son. So the Chronicle sat down with him to learn more about his return to Ballet Austin, what the company means to him, and where he sees it going under his leadership. The interview was conducted in his office on April 3, 2000.

Austin Chronicle: You left Ballet Austin in 1996, and in 1998, you decided to return. Why?

Stephen Mills: I'd been away for two years. I did one year and had a great time. Went everywhere. I was home 12 days that year. And starting the second year, I started to think, I can't believe this is really what I wanted. I had so much freelance work I couldn't handle it all. I was teaching everywhere, and going into the second year I was like, "This is really a grind." I was involved in a relationship and was not having any time at home. And I didn't have time to prepare for the work I wanted to do because it was so backed-up. So in assessing it, I decided, "I really want what I had." I want a company to work with, dancers that I know, and occasionally to be able to go out and do other things.

Really, the problem with where I was before I left was: I was doing all that and dancing at the same time. So in my mind it was, Ballet Austin is too demanding of me. I can't do all this. I'm going to go out and do my own thing. That sort of rebellious thing. And at the end of the second year, it was like the Prodigal Son coming home. After having had all that, what I wanted was here all along. What I wanted was just to be able to work in an environment of family, creating the work that I was interested in for an audience that appreciated it. Kind of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: "You were here all along!"

I made the request that I come back, and it was granted, and it was great.

AC: Was it difficult for you to make that request?

SM: No. No. Because when I decided that I was going to go, Lambros said, "Let's look at it as a leave of absence." I was saying, "Let's not." But I came to the conclusion that that's really what it was. He was very amenable to that because he didn't want me to go in the first place, but he understood that sometimes you have to go find out for yourself in order to appreciate what there is. So I finished my second-year commitments and came back to the company, teaching a lot in the academy and doing the two works I was supposed to do that season.

AC: When you came back in an official capacity, did you have any new sense of direction for yourself?

SM: It changed the way I perceived myself in the organization. I wasn't on payroll as a dancer, although I still danced. That was the year that we got chosen to do the Recontres in France, so I was dancing there. I danced in the Austin Festival of Dance. I did little things but not as a dancer with Ballet Austin. So my perception of where I was in the scheme of things was very different. I came in as a leader as opposed to a dancer.

The dancers perceive you differently when you're one of them. Now, I don't want the dancers ever to think of me as being apart from them because, you know, I'm still a dancer. I'll always be a dancer. And I hope I'll always keep in mind what it's like to be a dancer as I proceed through my day with them. But their reactions to me were different after I came back. My relationship with Lambros was different after I came back. In the academy, I was raised to a higher level of respect because I'd gone out and done what I'd had to do and come back.

I don't know whether it was my perspective that was different or everyone else's, but it was different in some respect. I felt an ease about doing what I had to do to make work. I wasn't as questioning of myself. You know, as an artist, you have to rely on instinct more than technique -- I do anyway. I'd gone out and been everywhere, meeting everybody and doing all sorts of things, so when I came back, I brought all that knowledge with me and I felt -- I don't know, it wasn't a purposeful thing, but I had a confidence that I was able to send out.

AC: Did that inform your choreography?

SM: Yeah. Because I wasn't questioning everything I did. I was like a painter just taking a big brush and using big broad strokes rather than getting into the minutiae of it, you know, like "Is that technique correct? Maybe that's not the right color." Just being more instinctual about it.

AC: Were there moments after you came back when you realized that you were a different person?

SM: I don't know. Cinderella was something completely different, because it was the first full-length ballet I'd ever done, and I went way out on a limb and threw all the music out and combined a new score for the ballet. And dealing with the dancers, dealing with musicians, dealing with the librarian to get the music together, and making a full-length ballet that had a story that actually made sense -- and the tremendous response it got -- I knew something was different. Cinderella is a fairy tale, it's a full-length ballet, but it was a big turning point for me artistically.

AC: What did you want it to be? Were you working against fairy tale ballets that you didn't like?

SM: It's an interesting story. The whole story is just so beautiful. There are 400 different stories of Cinderella, and the romantic in me said, "She has to get exactly what she wants, and she has to live happily ever after" -- although there are Cinderella stories where she doesn't.

All the press about me up to that time had used "contemporary," "modern," those sorts of words [to describe my work], and when I started, I felt that I had to maintain that, you know, to be different, when inside me there's a closeted classicist, somebody who really loves 19th-century ballet -- all the lines, all the petit pas, the soft arms, the bouncing up and down, the waltzing -- just loves it, absolutely loves it. So I would work on things and be, "No, that's not contemporary enough," and change it. In the end, it all went back in anyway.

There are things about 19th-century ballet that I don't like -- for instance, when people do pas de deux and break the action of the story to step forward and take a bow to the audience, that's something that I really hate -- so when I was making the ballet, the important part for me was to have a story that continued all the way through as though there were no audience, that always stayed contained within the stage, within the setting, and the audience just happened to be looking on. You know, people say ballet is so foreign -- they don't get it, don't understand it -- so being able to fill two hours of time and have people plug into emotionally was a goal as well.

AC: You mentioned the response to Cinderella. I assume you meant the audience response, but what was the response of the dancers? You know, people who are familiar with your work in a contemporary vein and suddenly you're working in a classical vein.

SM: Well, I love my dancers, and I think that we have a great working relationship. I'm very fortunate in that if I ask someone to do a cartwheel into a split, they say, "Do you want it on center or do you want it on quarter?" They're very, very easygoing about things, and we've had a long enough history that they trust me and trust that everything's going to be fine. And even if they don't, they do it.

AC: And what did you hear from the audience?

SM: You know, sometimes I get tense during a performance, so I don't always get a true sense of what's going on with the audience. But there were people who'd come back [afterward] and were crying. In the first act, Cinderella has a dream, and in it she meets a prince and they have this embrace, but they separate. Then in the end of the ballet, it actually happens to her, but they stay together. That sort of thing touched people, and that's how I knew it was a success: Because it actually carried people all the way through. They got the connection from the beginning to the very end, and it made sense and touched them.

Were there things that I wanted to change about it for this time? Yes. Certain steps, things like that. But the integrity of the emotion, the emotional content, is something we're working to keep through this production.

AC: Back to that artistic turning point: Did you feel like, "Okay, this is another element of this job that I have a command of?" Did you start out wanting to be able to choreograph anything and everything?

SM: I come from a theatre background, with that "triple-threat" thing: "You can sing, you can dance, you can act, you got a job." When I was younger, I saw this interview with Fred Astaire, and he said, "You never turn down a job. Even if you don't know how to do it, you take the job and through the struggle, you learn it." I mean, that's not the way he said it, but that stuck with me. I was always the first one to apply for something and then go learn how to do it if I didn't know how. One time someone called and said, "We'll pay you $500 if you'll choreograph a modeling show," or something like that. I thought, "$500? Of course, I can choreograph a modeling show!" And I wasn't even choreographing at the time, I was just dancing. Through those little things, you get to know how to deal with people and you learn so much. Next year, I'm choreographing a musical in Ohio, and I've never choreographed a musical before. Though I've done a lot of theatre dance, I've never choreographed a musical, but they said they'd pay me more than $500, so I said "Okay."

In the beginning, it was just sort of the Leo in me who said, "I can do anything." Now, I know that's not realistic, but through throwing myself out there, I've developed enough confidence that I feel like if I don't know how to do something, I can ask somebody. I can get enough knowledge to do it myself and in the process learn it. You know, you never know you can do something until you prove to yourself that you can. Now in this job, I'm learning a lot not just about being creative but about juggling schedules and being a leader. Being a leader as a choreographer is completely different than being a leader as an artistic director. So it's trial by fire some days and learning those lessons as they come up.

AC: Coming out of that experience, what did it make you want to do next?

SM: I've been very fortunate here because the audience is so diverse that I can do something like Cinderella and we have an audience that likes that sort of thing, then we can do something like Ashes, and we have an audience that likes that as well.

After Cinderella, the company was moving toward more full-lengths because it's what our audiences said they wanted. But with Lambros as director, new work was important, not just "Let's do Don Q, let's do Swan Lake." Let's do something new -- that was the thing. Cinderella was enough of a success that Lambros entrusted me to do another new full-length. "What would you like to do?" "Well, I'd like to do A Midsummer Night's Dream." I'd known the story since I was a kid and always loved the music. Not a lot of companies do it, so it was different. That's the way that happened.

Dance of the Prodigal Son
Photo By José L. Medina

AC: When I saw the piece, it struck me as so incredibly fresh. Did you start out trying to create something different?

SM: The problem with conventional full-length ballets is they stop. In opera, it happens, too: You get the story, the recitative, up to a certain point, then you stop and sing an aria. Then you carry on and then you stop. My goal in the Midsummer was to tell the whole story in one act. Have the story act, have the dance act. And I love physical humor. I just love slapstick physical humor. So it gave me the opportunity to combine all that in one thing.

AC: I was not prepared for the amount of physical comedy in Midsummer or the skill with which it was presented. I really appreciate comedy when it's done with discipline, style, and joy, and the comedy in Midsummer was. It was so much fun to watch.

SM: To me, there's nothing funnier than physical humor. Nothing. The old Charlie Chaplin films are really, really great. And through my theatre training, I studied a lot of mime -- not balletic mime, real mime. And Marcel Marceau is just a genius. When people see physical comedy, they really get it. But there's a discipline about it; you have to be clear to an audience. You have to say, "This is what's happening." And just like in acting, you can't step on each other. This has to be clear, this has to be clear, this has to be clear.

AC: Were you bringing out untapped comic talent that you knew was in these dancers or pushing dancers who had never done comedy into doing it?

SM: I think it was a little of both. There are some people who are not funny, and no matter what you do you'll never make them funny. You know those kind of people. But I was doing this ballet with people that I knew, and a lot of those people were in the roles. Just knowing Margot [Brown, who danced Helena] the way I know her, it was easy to put her into this and ask her to do specific things. There was coaching that had to go on, but knowing them really helped tremendously.

AC: Let me use that to jump to an issue facing you as artistic director. Where do you see the strengths of the company now, in terms of the dancers?

SM: Well, we're in a big transition. We've been in a big transition all year. There are some dancers who are going to remain with us, and there are some dancers who are going on to other things. But I think a really strong asset [of our company] that was really evident in the February concert when we did My Wall of Names, is a togetherness. I don't want to say "family" because that's almost too connected -- we're not that -- but the company works as a unit. They have a lot of emotional integrity. They go where I ask them to go as artists, and all of that comes together to make the experience that our audiences have had and keeps our audiences interested. We have a tremendously loyal audience, and some of that has to do with marketing and some of that has to do with me, but if the audiences didn't come and see something good going on onstage, they wouldn't continue to come. I think just as people, as human beings, the company members really get it, and they act as one, and everybody has a lot of integrity, and that comes out onstage.

AC: There is a sense of ensemble that comes across from the dancers, a sense of relationship and history.

SM: It's been a hard year. It's been a hard two years. But I think that there has been instilled within them -- and I don't know how it has come about -- a certain pride to be onstage. And it shows. It's a different company now. And I'm very pleased with them.

AC: Do you think that sense of pride comes from their having come through these hard times or is it tied into artistic accomplishments, or both?

SM: I think it's a combination. When the search was going on, it was very difficult for them. But no one bailed. Everybody hung tight. Everybody rallied behind me. It was very appreciated. And I think that sort of "We are behind you, and we are your company, and we're going out onstage and we're going to do this" was in evidence all the way through this season. It was a very strong season, and it had the potential to be disastrous. I'm proud of this season because of them. Truly.

AC: Was it the longest season you've ever been part of?

SM: [Laughs.] Yes. It was the longest season. It was the longest audition I've ever had in my life. And I'm glad -- I'm saying this now because I was the chosen one -- I'm glad the board went through the process. There was absolutely no other way to do it. Had they just laid the job in front of me, the audience wouldn't have been as appreciative. I wouldn't have been as appreciative. But the fact that they went around the world and came right back here is a testament. It's kind of an irony, too, because I did the same thing; I went all the way around the world and came right back here, to say "This is where I want to be."

AC: How much of your work this past season was bound up in showing the board what you could do? I know you don't make artistic decisions based on what someone's response might be, but still, you had this thing hanging over your head all year long.

SM: Well, most of the pieces to this season were in place before I was given the interim position. Certain elements dropped out once Lambros was not part of it. And since contracts had already been done, this season was very heavily my work. It wasn't really to help me audition, it really was a matter of "We gotta get the season on."

AC: Yes, but even so, when the projects were actually being created, you knew that the search committee was going to be sitting out there watching them and they could be a factor in helping you or hurting you.

SM: Well, I'll tell you what I told everybody all the way through the process. People would say, "Oh, you must be so nervous, you must be so anxious." Really. Not. Really not. I really was not aware that there was a search going on until, I would say, the middle part of January, when they started to bring candidates in. As far as I was concerned, it was a one-year gig, just like any other job I've had. It was a one-year gig, and I had to represent the company well to our community, I had to get the work onstage, and it had to satisfy me, because that's always been the thing: It always has to satisfy me. So we got Greco on, and it was fine, and Christine Albert came and sang Red Roses for us, and it was fine, and we did our new Nutcracker, and it was a push to get a whole full-length ballet done in two weeks so we could go on tour, but it was fine, and we reworked it before we got it here, and January came and I finished the Requiem before they started to bring candidates in, so it wasn't really like it was an issue. I really was just trying to do the best work I could. You always want to do the best job you can given the situation in which you find yourself. In those times when I was making a ballet, I was just trying to juggle the work I had to do behind the desk so I had the time to do what I needed to do upstairs.

AC: When the time came for you to actually talk to the search committee, had you figured out what you wanted to say to them? Had you anticipated at all what that part of the process was going to be like?

SM: Well, my being here for so long was helpful and it was a detriment. For people who are doing the choosing, in some ways you can think that the grass is always greener: "We want something completely different, and Stephen has been the status quo." I had an advantage because I know the community, I know the budget, I know lots of things that are important in making decisions in the direction that the company can go. So I just set a goal. This is the direction that I think the company needs to go, and I said, "It will take this amount of time. The first year we'll do this, the second year we'll do this, the third year we'll do this. But this is the path that we're taking."

The one thing that I wanted to avoid was putting myself in the situation where I said what they wanted to hear because I knew they wanted to hear it. Then I would be stuck with a vision that was not my own that I would have to live with. I think all the candidates stated right up front: "This is who I am. This is what I'm about. This is what I would do." Then the board just bought the vision. Which, I think, is the healthiest way. That way, there are no miscommunications. It's all up front in the beginning.

AC: Where were you when the word came down?

SM: I was sitting behind my desk, typing a schedule or something, and I got a call from the board room. It was a conference call, from the whole board. It was pretty tremendous.

AC: How did you celebrate?

SM: I finished my schedule. [Laughs.] And I think I went to Hyde Park [Bar & Grill] for dinner. No big deal.

The thing about it is, I'd been doing this [job already]. Now, people have been great. We had the press conference upstairs, and it was really tremendous the way people have been behind me, very supportive from the beginning. But my job really hasn't changed that much.

AC: That morning of the press conference, there was such a strong sense of support for you in that room. Granted, your job may not have changed that much, but surely that morning made some difference. Unless you received that much support all along, that conference must have been really validating.

SM: It was. It's one of those things that's so overwhelming. I've gotten standing ovations before, and it's wonderful to hear people say, "I enjoyed your work," and to hear dancers say, "That's so much fun to dance," things like that. But that day was one of the most overwhelming days I've ever had. Because I knew that people liked what I did or respected what I did, and everybody's always been so kind to me, but that day ... I mean, it just washed over me, and I still don't have the words to express what it was. The staff support was amazing, the board support was amazing, the press support was amazing, and there were people from our audience who just showed up. It was really, really tremendous. I never expected that. I don't expect it again.

AC: But does it help you at all as you move into this new era for the company to know that you had that strong a spoken show of support?

SM: The first ballet I did here was called Red Roses, and it was such a success. After it's over and you're asked to do another ballet, then you think, Now what? The second ballet can't be that successful. So it's always about topping yourself. Over the past 20 years, I've learned that there are ups and there are downs, and people love you and people hate you, and you just ride the wave. You just have to do what you say is right inside. But knowing that people are that supportive is a tremendous help.

But you know, as a dancer, I used to get so nervous, and finally a director took me aside and and said, "People don't come to the theatre to hate you. They come to the theatre to love you and to have a good experience." So I always just try to keep that in mind as I go through the day. The dancers come into class, and they're not there to hate you; they're here to like you. The audience wants to have a good experience when they come to the theatre, so you just do your best, and the truth will out, and you'll be okay.

AC: What are you most excited about right now? Are there things in the works that makes coming in every day a little special?

SM: Some dancers are going to New York this weekend to perform; I'm looking forward to that. We have some really talented dancers who are coming up that I really enjoy going to the studio to push. Next year, I'm doing a full-length Hamlet with Philip Glass music that I can't wait to get started on. We're looking to the next season to sponsor an international choreographic competition, to bring three choreographers from somewhere on this planet to Austin to make new work.

This is the thing that makes Austin different from any other dance community. Because of the kind of press that we have gotten, and the focus and knowledge of people who know about and understand the craft of choreography -- and of people who don't fully understand the craft of choreography but understand the importance of it -- our audience thinks about the choreography. They don't just go, "She was a pretty dancer." They are able to verbalize and have conversations about work. So I think that Austin is ready for that international exposure. It's something that, as a choreographer, is really important to me.

Bringing new work into our company is the number one priority for me. Because we haven't had a lot of it. It's been a lot of my work, a lot of Lambros' work, and sporadic choreographers from outside. But if we want to raise the level of the company, to raise the level of exposure for the company, it's important to bring critics, to bring dancers, to bring choreographers from outside here to see what's going on, so they'll go out and talk about us in a positive way. It's a big thing, but it's something I'm very excited about. end story

Ballet Austin performs Cinderella April 28-30, Fri-Sun, at Bass Concert Hall. Call 476-2163.

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