Ballet Austin II and Butler Fellowship Program's Spring Performance

The program's mix of classical and contemporary work challenged its young dancers and left you wanting to see what's next for them

Photo by Anne Bloodgood

Ballet dancers are eternal students; even international stars depend on their teachers and coaches. So when does a ballet student become a professional? Over the past decades, the line between student and professional has become more of a space. Whereas teenagers once flocked to cattle-call auditions to compete for full company positions, now most of those young dancers are vying for positions with apprentice companies, spots in trainee programs, and even acceptance into college dance programs. While opinions vary on this shift, Ballet Austin's own paid apprentice company, Ballet Austin II, and its 2-year-old tuition-free trainee program, the Butler Fellowship program, seem to be win-win-win: dancer, company, audience.

In a concert of classical and contemporary works, dancers from both groups exemplified two distinct stages of young dancerhood, both capable of doing a lot and, most importantly, willing to try anything. In the program opener, an excerpt from Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills' Truth & Beauty, dancers from both groups drank in the music (Bach), reverent as they moved in canon. Next, Kayla Hallman, a radiant second-year Butler Fellow, led the gentle dance of the princesses from Mills' Firebird. Before intermission, the rosy "Grand pas des Fleurs" from the 19th century ballet La Esmeralda (based on Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) satisfied the audience's sweet tooth, but its bare classicism and technical challenges served as a bittersweet reminder of ballet's unforgivingness. One young dancer might, for example, possess powerful and beautiful legs and unfailing aplomb, while another has a refined upper body and always just the right expression on her face, but neither has it all. Such is life, as these dancers are learning.

After intermission came two contemporary premieres. Michelle Thompson Ulerich's Planets was the heart of the program – rich, nuanced, and lovely. Each of the work's four sections began with 10 dancers (Ballet Austin II plus trainee Mickey Erickson), placed atop, beneath, and around three narrow tables, slapping their bodies and thumping their chests in synchronous rhythms before exhaling and lilting into Chopin. Groups moving as organisms, among softly fractured lighting (designed by Steven Myers) and in beige costumes and soft shoes, countered the serious connotations of the tables – surgery, repairs, examinations – as well as the isolation of the individuals who, periodically, lay supine on them. By the end of the work, the dancers had upended the tables and investigated their permeability as walls: One dancer coaxed another around a barrier by creating a frame for his face with her hands.

The final work, Jennifer Hart's "The Road (Part 1)," for the 17 Butler fellows, flung us into something completely different. In vibrant mismatched outfits (designed by Emily Cawood) and painted faces, the dancers were a gaggle of rag dolls, giddily exploring a range of movement, to Bach, as though for the first time – pelvis bumps, bouncing jumps, pouting faces, languid rolls across the floor. The work was surprising, even from Hart (who has choreographed other dancers to roll themselves up in a carpet and eat flowers). But for every audience member who wondered, "What is this work?" there was no doubt a young dancer who, via the silliness and striped socks, experienced revelatory freedom of movement or a new intimacy with the music – which is reason enough to look forward to Part II of this work, and what's next for these dancers.

Ballet Austin II and Butler Fellowship Program's Spring Performance

AustinVentures StudioTheater, 501 W. Third
March 3

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Ballet Austin, Ballet Austin II, Butler Fellowship Program, Michelle Martin, Stephen Mills, Kayla Hallman, Michelle Thompson Ulerich, Jennifer Hart, Steven Myers, Emily Cawood

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