CLASSICAL ballets are often the domain of regal swans, star-crossed lovers, evil magicians and mythical beasts. For the price of a ticket, the balletomane can swoon in an imaginary landscape unencumbered by harsh reality.
For choreographer Stephen Mills, the artistic director of Ballet Austin and a former dancer, ballet is his mother tongue — and he speaks it beautifully.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, however, beauty faded from his lexicon. Americans mourned. Flags waved. War loomed. Artists questioned.
“Making pretty dances certainly didn’t feel relevant or helpful at the time,” Mills says in a conference room at The Colorado Ballet. “You could argue that art is a salve that brings solace to people, and I would agree with that.
“But in terms of creating art, it felt like an empty exercise.”
Mills realized he needed to have a deeper conversation with his audience, and his art.
“I think people have always thought of ballet — not particularly dance but ballet — as a frail art form that is only capable of dealing with medieval fables, betrayed princesses and fairy tales,” he says.
Mills chose to stick with ballet, the language of his heart. But what would he say?
Not long after initiating a search for an appropriate subject, a friend suggested that the Holocaust might be the answer to his thematic dilemma.
“I thought that was a ridiculous idea,” Mills laughs candidly, explaining that he’s “just a Catholic boy from Kentucky.” He knew nothing about the Holocaust beyond The Diary of Anne Frank (eighth grade), Elie Wiesel’s Night (12th grade), and assorted, disconnected facts.
In 2003, Mills met for two hours with Holocaust survivor and Austin resident Naomi Warren, survivor of Auschwitz, Ravensbruck and Bergen-Belsen. For him, her narrative was revelatory.
“Anyone who has had the opportunity to visit with a survivor knows that it’s one of the most profound personal exchanges of your life,” he says. “A total stranger is giving you intimate details of the most horrific crime in human history.
“But I worried that I might be co-opting someone else’s story — that this was not my story to tell.”
“I tried everything to convince Naomi that I was the wrong person to relate her story. She said that as an artist I had the resources to do this — and make a difference. Not only could I do it, it was my responsibility as a citizen of the world.”
The Colorado Ballet will perform the local premiere of “Light,” set to music by Steve Reich, Evelyn Glennie, Michael Gordon, Arvo Part and Philip Glass, on March 29-31 at DU’s Newman Center.