Stephen Mills did not plan on becoming a dancer, a choreographer or the artistic director of Ballet Austin. Raised in Kentucky, he excelled at piano in school and attended college on a theater scholarship. His theater curriculum required he take a dance class.
“I thought I would hate it. I started very late, but it really resonated,” Mills said.
That late start blossomed into an extensive career featuring inventive collaborations, including the development of Bounce, a short ballet featured in the Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s Spring Celebration.
Diversity has always been a hallmark of his career. As a dancer, he was a performing member of Harkness Ballet and The American Dance Machine. He also danced with the Cincinnati Ballet and The Indianapolis Ballet Theater. He danced principal roles in Balanchine repertoire as well as in works by Israeli contemporary choreographer, Ohad Naharin and Neoclassical Venezuelan choreographer Vincente Nebrada.
“My goal was to learn as many styles as possible. There is more to dance than tiaras and tutus,” Mills said.
His background in music and his interest in composition made choreography is a natural evolution for Mills.
“As a dancer, you have to be curious. I was always thinking about composition. I was always thinking about how things come together and the construction of the piece,” Mills said.
Mills has choreographed more than 40 pieces for companies such as The Hong Kong Ballet, American Ballet Theater Studio Company, Washington Ballet, BalletMet/Columbus and Texas Ballet Theater.
He has been awarded the Prix d’Auteur at the Rencontres Chorégraphiques Internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis in Paris and the Steinberg Award for choreography at the Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur in Montreal.
When the Ballet Austin’s board began an international search for new artistic leadership in 1998, Mills was the rehearsal director for the company and he became a candidate for the job. He took over as artistic director mid-season in 1999 and learned how to manage on the job.
“There’s not an easy way to prepare. It’s like drinking from a fire hose. The hard part of it is the administrative side of it: the budgeting, the scheduling, the communications with the different constituencies,” Mills said.
During his tenure at Ballet Austin, the company has grown in terms of budget size and fared the recession better than most dance companies in the nation. Austin has developed more sophisticated audiences and Mills has been challenged to take on bigger projects and develop connections within the Austin arts community.
One of the significant projects Mills chose to take on was inspired by a national tragedy.
“After the events of 9/11, I fell into a real depressed state. By 2003, the nation was headed to an unjustified war. I was feeling like, ‘Why am I making dances? How is it relevant? How could art be used as a catalyst to teach?’” Mills said.
After meeting a Holocaust survivor, he channeled his contemplations into creating Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project. The piece has been performed in Israel and Mills received the Humanitarian Award from the Anti-Defamation League for the work.
In February, Ballet Austin will debut another humanitarian work choreographed by Mills, Exit Wounds. The work addresses loss, fear and bravery.
“We can’t allow fear to take over our lives and prevent choosing courage. It’s going to be an important conversation to have. The responsibility of the artist is to call out injustice where we see it and cause conversation to happen,” Mills said.
Mills developed a compelling artistic partnership with composer, Graham Reynolds. Reynolds is best known for his scores for Richard Linklater films, including Bernie, Before Midnight and A Scanner Darkly. He collaborates with Rude Mechanicals, an Austin theater collective and composed the score for Fork Lift Danceworks’ The Trash Project which featured Austin’s Solid Waste Services Department.
In 2009, Mills and Reynolds developed Truth & Beauty/The Bach Project. The work consists of dance works: Truth & Beauty, Angel of My Nature and Bounce. Mills and Reynolds used Bach as inspiration and a thematic unifier for the work.
“It’s rhythmic, sexy and fun,” Mills said. Ballet Austin dancers will also perform One/the body’s grace.
Mills traveled to Dallas to work on Bounce with the Dallas Black Dance Theatre. He found a welcoming artistic company and an artistic adviser he admires.
“The opportunity to work with a contemporary company is appealing. The dancers are high energy and focused. It makes being in the studio fun and interesting,” Mills said. “Ann Williams has really been a treasure, not only in Dallas but in our field. I’ve been very grateful to her. She’s been a great advocate of mine. I aspire to be her one day.”
Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s Spring Celebration concludes the company’s 40th anniversary season at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre from May 19-21.
Kimberly Richard is a North Texan with a passion for the arts. She’s worked with Theatre Three, Inc. and interned for the English National Opera and Royal Shakespeare Company. She graduated from Austin College and currently lives in Garland with her very pampered cocker spaniel, Tessa.