Ballet Austin Turns Heads

Stephen Mills makes sexy ballets for his Texas troupe

With his background in theater-dance, modern, and classical ballet, Austin Ballet artistic director Stephen Mills could have gone in any direction. With his diverse training, he developed a distinctive style and vocabulary that runs through each of the very different dances performed at the Joyce on Wednesday, October 5.

The earliest piece, “Ashes” was created in 1997 and was then dropped into a full-length work about the Holocaust. Presented on its own this Joyce season, it is achingly sad––and sometimes angry. The imagery leaves the spectator disillusioned, not horrified.

In a cold light, a pile of bodies breaks apart and the dancers shake off the dust. They alternate between aggressive and clingy interaction. A lot happens on the floor. A male spins around in a fetal position by contracting and extending his body. Lisa Washburn slides forward on her butt. The suffering expressed on her face and in her movement is fully convincing. As she tries to get up, the others walk around her. In the end, no one can help. She walks in circles and ends alone onstage.

This may sound like alienation—the subject of many a postmodern dance—but the movement’s humanity and its classical base set it apart.

Costumes are minimal—flesh tone leotards with bare legs, bare-chested men. Throughout, the sensuality in Mills’ dances is riveting to watch. The body is celebrated and the dancers, men and women, are built. “Ashes” is performed barefoot to the pensive, plodding tones of Arvo Pärt; the composer is a favorite for many contemporary choreographers. Tony Tucci’s strong lighting highlights the figures, and they appear tactile, taking on colors that deepen with the mood.

“One/The Body’s Grace” is an introduction followed by three duets expressing different stages of love—to music by Handel, Gluck, and Bach. Allisyn Paino and Eric Midgley are playful if edgy. Paino’s movement is willful and deliberate. Her cartwheels segue seamlessly into her pointe work. In a second, more intimate duet, Washburn is more delicate and Anthony Casati’s partnering couldn’t be finer. Mirroring each other or moving together, their backs are arched and spines undulate. Gina Patterson and Jim Stein actually jump together, arm in arm, evincing a shared life. The theme of getting closer is a subtle one, allowing us to enjoy the dancers’ commitment to Mills’ movement and the gorgeous bodies lit against the darkness creating asymmetrical and unpredictable formations. All come forward waving their arms above, finishing the piece with a sense of celebration.

Mills said after the performance “there’s no reason to dance if there are no relationships on stage.” The choreographer admitted that’s the crux of his art—along with birth and death!

The movement alludes to sex, and the sexes, but rather conventionally; issues of orientation and diversity are notably absent. Issues blur with stellar dancing and fast moving choreography in the excellent world premiere “Desire and Three Movements.” Again the music begins with Pärt, but it’s not long before a recording of Steve Reich takes over and the dance explodes with activity. The women push up on pointe to towering heights. Their expressions and postures are decidedly feline.

In nearly sheer lavender skirted leotards and with French-twisted buns, they’re stylish; it could be 1960 or 2060. Sharp crisp spins in duets or quartets, angular ten o’clock extensions, and a playful leap off the hip of a male partner lend a more sophisticated social feel to this dance, as in Mathew Bourne’s “Play Without Words.” Reich seems to have unleashed the burden in the obligatory pairing off that Whit Stillman so objected to in his film “Metropolitan.” “Desire” is full of duets but they never look like a showcase—and the resulting sense of play is delightful and stimulating. The repetitive Reich takes a back seat to the dance’s counterpoint.

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