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Stephen Mills on Finding Inspiration

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012
When we began talking internally about Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project, Artistic Director Stephen Mills walked us through the inception of the ballet. Read below to see how he found inspiration for his work – or in this case, how it found him.
In the life of an artist one is always searching. The search for a narrative, music, new movement language, or simply a kernel of an idea is constant and ongoing. An artist has to remain open to possibilities. Ideas rarely come while sitting behind a desk or computer. Very often the best work comes from years of collecting seemingly disparate ideas. I keep files of tear sheets from magazines of images that are interesting or provocative. Art and fashion magazines as well as newspapers contain great source material. I store away unusual colors I find from various sources. Even paint chips can become part of my hoarding. I find music I like and put it back until I find a project it might be right for. I even collect titles for dances that might not be created for years, if ever. I hold all this information in files, on my computer or iPhone, and in my mind simultaneously. For me, the idea for a dance might happen over the course of years because all the visual and aural information I’ve gathered needs one unifying, ‘ah ha’ moment to bring it together. At that point it becomes like a puzzle where I can see all the pieces, and I go about assembling them. Why it happens like that, I don’t understand.

In my full-length ballet Hamlet, the dance is divided into two acts. Act II is set in a completely white environment with two very large ski slope like structures upstage. These ‘scoops’ serve a couple of purposes: Besides being aesthetically beautiful, the structures allow for the white of the floor to carry up onto the back wall, which visually elongates the floor. Secondly, they become the ground in which the character Ophelia is buried after her death. The idea for this device came to me at the end of a flight when I noticed structures such as this at the end of the runway. I believe that in an emergency they prevent the planes from over-shooting the runway. Originally designed as safety devices, they now find themselves in a ballet. This image, photos of red flowers and plexiglass tubes came together to create that ‘ah ha’ moment; the aesthetic of the work became inevitable.

And though artists are always in search of new projects, sometimes the project seeks out the artist. Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project is an example of a work in search of an artist. In the creation of this piece I used images from my files – all of which were unrelated to the Holocaust. In developing this dance I used all the devices I’ve mentioned but brought one more element to my process of brainstorming: Memory. I spent an entire year researching the historical narrative of the Holocaust, and brought from Europe many photographs and books. Studying the ways in which the Holocaust has been represented in the past was very informative, and the ways in which loss and absence has been illuminated became important.

I have had the good fortune to spend time with many Holocaust survivors. Hearing firsthand accounts of the pain and loss people endured during this catastrophic event has left an indelible mark on my psyche. I am forever changed by this knowledge, as well as by the generosity of those who shared this intimate information. But there is no art – no enduring art – without inspiration. For me, the inspiration for this work came from Naomi Warren. A survivor of three of the most notorious death camps in history, Naomi lost nearly her entire family in the Holocaust. Naomi is inspiring because of her tenacious and resilient nature, and her positive perspective in the face of unimaginably negative knowledge is awesome. Creating this work was difficult, emotionally challenging, eye-opening and fulfilling. I have had the most profound experience of my dance making career because the inspiration for creating it came from a very spiritually connected place. I believe Naomi served the role of medium between that place and me, and obviously it will be nearly impossible to access that place again. I am no more certain of where inspiration comes from than before this project, but I now know to expect the unexpected and appreciate the opportunities when they arise.

Hansel and Gretel – Dancer Preview #2

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Ballet Austin II dancer Sarah Hicks lets us into the world of  creative “workshopping”.

As a young dancer, you don’t often have the privilege to be choreographed. The opportunity to have a completely new work of art created for you is perhaps one of the most exciting parts of being a dancer. The fact that I have experienced this with Nelly van Bommel’s Hansel and Gretel is absolutely thrilling, to say the least.

Every choreographer works and creates movement differently. In Nelly’s case, we went through an exhilarating, entertaining and, at times, completely hysterical process we called “workshopping.” In these creative brainstorm sessions Nelly would give us a simple idea, such as pretending to run through a room full of shattered glass, and have us show her our physical interpretation. From there, she would take the movement we gave her and morph it into something quintessentially “Nelly.”

After much manipulation and innovation on Nelly’s part, we ended up with movement that could easily be described as playful, energetic and even mischievous. Her choreography is largely based on a tribal-like community feeling in which moving as a group and being comfortable with your fellow dancers is crucial. She challenged us to create games, to be shamelessly verbal while dancing, and to spend a lot of time rolling, stomping, scooting and crawling on the floor (activities we “bun-heads” generally find mortifying!).  Despite all this, the challenges paid off and we ended up with a piece that is funny, charming and truly unique.

Another notable quality of Nelly’s work is her use of props. As an audience member, you will quickly find yourself thrust into a world of spinning tables, four wheel drive shopping carts, and velcro cupcakes.  Nelly created a full sensory experience in her fabulously comical interpretation of a fairy tale classic.

Hansel and Gretel is entertainment for the whole family, sure to please audience members of all ages. Don’t miss it!

Hansel and Gretel opens Feb 25. Tickets available here.

Hansel and Gretel – Artistic Preview

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012
Associate Artistic Director, Michelle Martin, discusses how one choreographer’s personality, background and constant curiosity combine to make Hansel and Gretel a ballet you won’t forget.

Nelly van Bommel’s Hansel and Gretel, is one of those rare examples of a work that appeals across generations, and its success is as much a reflection of her energy and sense of humor as it is of her choreographic talent. Nelly’s curiosity provides her with a limitless pool of inspiration, and she draws on her background in street theater, and modern dance technique to express her discoveries.

I came to know Nelly through Ballet Austin’s biennial choreographic competition, New American Talent/Dance. She was one of the three finalists in 2010 and I spent two weeks in the studio with her as she created a new work, Fanfarneta, for our main company.  As she worked, I was fascinated by her interest in human interaction and her eye for nuance, particularly within interpersonal  encounters. I thought her highly theatrical aesthetic would be a wonderful match for a narrative work, and her collaborative approach would provide a rich experience for the dancers in Ballet Austin II. I was thrilled when she accepted our invitation to create Hansel and Gretel.

Nelly’s work on Hansel and Gretel began with a series of facilitated games for the dancers. Some were based on movement and others involved vocalization. Through this process she began to know the dancers as individuals, in terms of both physicality and personality; and from this foundation, she matched each dancer with her ideas of the characters from Hansel and Gretel.  Using the movement from her games, she crafted the dance portions of the piece first. Set to a series of traditional German folk songs, they’re high energy and playful, establishing her whimsical perspective on the story and its characters. The narrative scenes, particularly with the Witch, Hansel and Gretel, and their parents, were made in a very collaborative way – the dancers contributed to the development of the characters and the progression of the story. Nelly’s unique perspective is interspersed throughout the ballet with quirky interjections of props that are brilliantly out of context and absolutely hilarious – a wildly retro vacuum cleaner, baskets of apples and mountains of marshmallows .

Hansel and Gretel – Dancer Preview #1

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Kody Jauron, “Hansel”, lets us in on why Hansel and Gretel isn’t your mother’s fairy tale.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being a part of the creation of Hansel and Gretel! Working with choreographer Nelly van Bommel has been an enjoyable and memorable experience. Nelly is whimsical, playful, theatrical, and innovative. Her sprightly personality is reflected in the choreography of this production, the theatricality she built into each individual character, and the fantasy world that she invented.

This is not your mother’s Hansel and Gretel. For starters, the story takes place in the 1950s.  Hansel and Gretel are not expelled from their house because their parents cannot afford to feed them; instead, the two run away from home after accidentally breaking their mother’s most prized possession; her vacuum. Children can also look forward to a newcomer to the story, the forest fairy!

Perfect for the entire family, Hansel and Gretel has something for everyone. Kids will enjoy the fun-loving characters and seeing a familiar fairy tale translated on stage. Adults will appreciate the cutting edge choreography and unique movement quality.

This is definitely a Hansel and Gretel you won’t forget.

Get tickets to Hansel and Gretel here.

NAT/D Video Blog #3: Bradley Shelver

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

The third and final installment in our New American Talent/Dance Choreographer Series video blogs.

New American Talent/Dance opens Feb 17. Don’t miss it!

NAT/D: Dancer Preview #3

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

For our third dancer preview, we asked Orlando Julius Canova to discuss what it’s like to perform in an all-male piece.

The rumor the day Bradley Shelver arrived to cast the dancers was that Bradley was going to do a ballet only using men. Since the inception of New American Talent/Dance, no choreographer has chosen to only use men. The rumors were finally put to rest when he excused all the ladies and auditioned the ten men of Ballet Austin. In the audition that ensued we were asked to yell, tumble, and push our bodies to their physical limit. I knew that when Bradley returned to choreograph on his cast of men, it would mean one thing… PAIN.

The first day Bradley returned to choreograph, he began like a racehorse out of the starting gate. His stride was swift, and his steps were confident. From day one, Bradley was incredibly organized and sure of what he wanted. Some choreographers begin to piece work together after getting to know their dancers, but Bradley had no time for that – his brain was bursting at the seams with the ballet that danced in his mind. Bradley began to set his work immediately, and within the first day, four minutes and twenty two seconds of the ballet were choreographed.

Bradley’s entire residency continued in this pace. Bradley had a schedule and no matter how grueling and difficult, he stuck to it. Every day, I went home battered and bruised both mentally and physically. After a week of floor burn, swollen knees, and bruised thighs the ballet was finished. Let me reiterate: Bradley Shelver finished his ballet in only a WEEK.

Though done in only a week,   with six sections, two solos, and even a pas de deux, the ballet does not lack for anything. I believe that the bonds of camaraderie between the men of Ballet Austin have grown stronger. The work that took place in AustinVentures StudioTheater was focused and dedicated, and because of this Bradley’s piece is filled with anxiety, tension, beauty, athleticism, grace, and strength. This piece makes me proud to be a man of Ballet Austin.

Today is the last day of Bradley Shelver’s residency. As I write this blog I am well aware of the crick in my neck, the scabs on my feet, and the pain in my muscles. I am also well aware of the satisfaction that all these ailments give me. Bradley pushed and coached the men of Ballet Austin to the brink of insanity. When we had nothing left to give, he wanted more. When the curtain goes up on Feb, the men of Ballet Austin will give the audience more than they ever knew they could.

Tickets on sale now for New American Talent/Dance.

NAT/D Video Blog #2: Loni Landon

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Check out our second installment in the New American Talent/Dance Choreographer Series video blogs.

New American/Talent Dance opens Feb 17. Don’t miss it!

NAT/D Dancer Preview #2

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

Improvisation, “ugly” movements and commands. James Fuller discusses Loni Landon’s choreography style.

Loni Landon started her choreographic residency at Ballet Austin by asking me and the other dancers in her piece to close our eyes and explore our feet. I turned my feet out and in, rolled my weight onto my heels and then onto to the tops of my arches and crossed my feet so far that I could barely move. In ballet class, all of these positions would have been horribly wrong, but Loni wanted us to find ways of moving that would normally feel awkward or ugly. She explained that movements that feel awkward and ugly can be fresh, interesting and beautiful in ways that traditional steps can’t.

From our feet, we moved up gradually into our knees, hips, torso, head and finally arms. After giving each part of our body its due, we started to work with each other, first in pairs and then as a group. One of us would call out a command like “freeze”, “collapse” or “rescue”, and the other dancers would respond. We soon discovered that much of Loni’s choreography was like these commands: very specific but also open to many interpretations.

The last exercise Loni gave was to perform a short solo about ourselves. She encouraged us to both speak and dance. Everyone was nervous, but the results were magical. We danced and talked about our childhoods, our years of training, our relationships and our quirks. In just a few minutes, I learned things about my coworkers that I would never have dreamed. Loni gave us this assignment because she wanted to get to know us. She wanted our personalities to be part of her piece.

For the next few days, we learned phrases and created short group dances. I found this part of the process difficult both because of the volume of material and because Loni’s approach to movement is very different from ours. Loni approaches movement holistically, and wanted us to grasp her material’s shape, dynamic and intent simultaneously. At Ballet Austin, we usually approach movement more analytically. We break down the mechanics of each step, figure out when each step happens, and after all that work is done, we think about intent. I found it very hard to break myself out of this pattern. Loni would ask me to perform her movement with full dynamic and intent before I had had a chance to break it down and assimilate it.

Fortunately, as the piece gradually came together, I started to feel more comfortable in Loni’s movement. The piece is dark and smooth, but I can see glimpses of our jagged improvisations and cheerful solos in it. It’s fascinating to see two weeks of improvisation, tension and sharing woven into a piece.

Tickets on sale now for New American Talent/Dance.

NAT/D Video Blog #1: Gregory Dolbashian

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

The first installment in a three-part series on our New American Talent/Dance choreographers.

New American Talent/Dance opens Feb 17. Don’t miss it!

NAT/D: Dancer Preview #1

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

New American Talent/Dance benefits choreographers and dancers alike. See how company dancer Beth Terwilleger learned to speak a new language.

A dance career is often too short, therefore the work that goes into it must be intense and full of passion in order to squeeze as much out of it as possible. Any chance to work with a new artist or choreographer is a gift that promises the opportunity to grow in many ways. I am lucky enough to dance for a company that not only has a director who challenges and allows his dancers to grow with his work, but one that also brings in artists to add to the richness of the company’s dancers and repertoire.

New American Talent/Dance allows for choreographers with a variety of voices and interpretations of movement to come into the world of Ballet Austin and help us grow. I feel very lucky to be a part of this project and constantly try to embrace the opportunity. With every choreographer, it is like turning into a sponge and soaking up as much as I can from the experience. Every choreographer I have worked with for NAT/D has spoken a new and different language. Some you will learn to speak better than others and some you may feel like you actually speak a little of already, but there is always a great amount of opportunity for growth.

This year I was chosen by Greg Dolbashian to be a part of his creative process and dance in his piece for NAT/D 2012. The experience of working with Greg was one that was truly unique to my dance career. Never, while growing up in a classical dance training environment, did I ever imagine I would be asked to explore the movement possibilities of dancing improvisational work, eyes closed, onstage during a performance. And this, exactly, is what Gregory asked me to do.  The improvisational work in Greg’s piece is heavily inspired by his own choreographic voice and movement style.  Greg’s language is unique and inspiring, but  it was also exceptionally challenging ; attempting to speak his language was no easy task.  Watching him move and hearing his deep understanding of movement and the emotion and the art that goes behind it allowed for me to fearlessly dive into his rehearsals. While I still feel I have a lot of work do to before I could even scrape the surface of what he is trying to pull from me as an artist, I know I have already really grown from the experience.

The beauty of a project like NAT/D is the opportunity for growth for all involved.  Not only do the dancers gain from it, but the choreographers are given a group of artists willing to explore with them and, ultimately, help them develop as well. The dancers grow, the choreographers grow, and Ballet Austin as an organization grows and benefits greatly as well. This type of support in the art world is imperative for growth, and the more we all support each other, the stronger the art world will be.

 

Tickets on sale now for New American Talent/Dance.

 
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