Dallas — A rollercoaster of emotions, movement that changes in texture, weight and dimension, and jumps – lots of them. With its strong classical foundation and pas de deux like couplings, Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills’ Bounce is a detour from what we normally see from Dallas Black Dance Theatre (DBDT). Well known for presenting works that honor the African American culture and related dance styles, it’s easy to forget that DBDT is also well-versed in modern, jazz and classical dance forms. The dancers prove this in Bounce, which will be performed alongside works by Twyla Tharp and DBDT’s new Artistic Director Bridget L. Moore at the company’s annual Spring Celebration Series, May 19-21, at the Charles and Dee Wyly Theatre in the Arts District.
In Bounce, the dancers’ strong classical training can be seen in their port de bras, controlled arabesques and jumps with deep plies, which Mills cleverly fused with grounded foot work, curvaceous spine movements and elastic body positions for a more contemporary look. And with no plotline or hidden messages to decipher the audience can just sit back and enjoy the way the dancers’ bodies interpret the music, which is an original score by Austin-based composer Graham Reynolds. Reynolds’ work has been featured in numerous movie soundtracks, including Before Midnight, Bernie and A Scanner Darkly and he is one of Mills’ favorite collaborators for original dance music.
Mills has always had a penchant for all things musical. Growing up in a small town in Kentucky, Mills’ extracurricular activities included piano lessons and drama club. It wasn’t until his first year of college when one of his theater requirements included him taking a ballet class that he discovered his passion for the art form. From there he jumped into every class he could find, including ballet, modern, jazz, tap and even African dance at the Ailey School. He would later join The Harkness Ballet and The American Dance Machine in New York before moving on to work with Ohard Naharin, Katherine Posin and Mark Dendy.
Since becoming artistic director of Ballet Austin in 2000, Mills has created a number of innovative and memorable works for the company, including Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew and Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project, his two-year, community-wide human rights collaboration. Most recently, Mills was awarded the Steinberg Award, the top honor at Le Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur International Choreographic Competition for One/the body’s grace.
Mills’ sophisticated understanding of music can be seen throughout Bounce from the opening sequence where the dancers bounce side-to-side to the syncopated beats of a xylophone; to his visually compelling use of movement canons and moments of stillness in the quartet with Claude Alexander, III, Zion Pradier, Sean J. Smith and De’ Anthony Vaughan accompanied by the harmonious tinkering of a piano. While I didn’t get to see Mills at the rehearsal of Bounce I attended last week at DBDT’s main studio in downtown Dallas I did get to see international choreographer and Dallas native Bridget L. Moore in the studio – an opportunity I have been looking forward to since it was announced she would be taking over as artistic director earlier this year.
I was eager to see how she would interact with the dancers now that she has become a permanent fixture in the organization. She has worked with the company on many different occasions, but it has always been in a visiting artist capacity. While I wasn’t surprised with her straight-forward, hands-on approach during notes, I was inspired by her thoughtful individual critiques, which were focused on helping the dancers continue to growth artistically for the long haul and not just in the moment.
A prime example was her feedback for Alyssa Harrington regarding one of her duet sections with Alexander. “You have such beautiful lines, but there’s still more you can do to bring us in,” Moore says. “Push to elongate more and reach behind that knee. Don’t just rely on the lines you have.” The movement phrase Moore was referring to is when Harrington developes her right leg up as she leans into Alexander before she springs back onto that leg in an arabesque hold with her arms reaching forward. Harrington’s mind/body connection was much stronger after hearing Moore’s comments. She was able to stretch through her movement more, which did indeed draw my eye in.
One of the things Moore wanted the group as a whole to continue working on is their performance quality. Because the work keeps bouncing back and forth between various emotions and moods such as anger, longing, flirtation and joy, it’s imperative that the dancers remain in the zone if they want the piece to keep the audience engaged from start to finish. “You have to continue building your performance quality while also executing the movement at the same time. You need to figure out how to connect more with the movement and your partner so the piece reads well.”
You can find out how well the piece reads at Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s Spring Celebration Series, May 19-21, at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in the Dallas Arts District. In addition to Stephen Mills’ Bounce, the program also includes Bridget L. Moore’s Southern Recollection: For Romare Bearden and Uncharted Territory as well as Twyla Tharp’s 1983 Sinatra Suite© and a special guest performance by Ballet Austin, performing Mills’ One.
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com