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Imagine Austin's Future
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Adding value to Austin's art community: Ballet Austin looks to the future

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Austin Photo Set: News_stephen mills_ballet austin_ new movement_jan 2012_1
New American Talent/Dance Courtesy of Ballet Austin
Austin Photo Set: News_stephen mills_ballet austin_ new movement_jan 2012_2
New American Talent/Dance Courtesy of Ballet Austin
Austin Photo Set: News_stephen mills_ballet austin_ new movement_jan 2012_1
Austin Photo Set: News_stephen mills_ballet austin_ new movement_jan 2012_2
Austin Photo: Author_Stephen Mills

Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills submitted this essay as part of our Imagine Austin's Future special series. 

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When I arrived in Austin 23 years ago, I expected to find a small, desolate Texas town filled with brush and cowboys. Coming immediately from New York, I was afraid my dance career was about to end in a place where people still tied their horses to hitching posts.

Okay, I was 25 years old and completely unaware. What I actually found in Austin was a small city with big ambition. Not unlike myself, Austin’s future couldn’t be fulfilled without the amalgamation of people, cultures and ideas present here. 

Over the years, much of Austin has changed; some for the better, some arguably not. The city has grown, but that subversive spirit I found and loved hasn’t diminished. 

 Art has value, and Austin understands that principle. Although art has the ability to entertain and inform, it also convenes communities in dialogue. 

Our community has always been composed of a highly educated population.  People come to the University of Texas, immediately connect to the city and never leave. Industry and the creative class look at Austin as youthful and innovative. Our population has grown exponentially and support of the arts has kept pace. 

Austin is one of only 19 cities in the country with companies for ballet, symphony and opera.  A multitude of additional groups exist for modern dance, chamber music and theater, all presenting work in original, “Austin” ways. 

While funding for the arts is diminishing nationally, Austin continues to support its own. In the past decade, Ballet Austin has become the 15th largest ballet company in the United States and has performed in New York, Washington, D,C., Canada, France, Italy and Slovenia. Last season was our best selling ever, with more than 42,000 tickets sold.

We have built the largest community school for dance in the country with nearly 4,000 participants a year. Annually, we provide over $150,000 in scholarships and financial aid, provide 8,000 free tickets to area non-profit clients through our Night of Community program, and provide educational programs in 36 school districts. And none of this would be possible without a community that values art.

Ballet Austin’s first core value centers around the idea of being an incubator of new work. Over the past decade, we have engaged in the creation of dozens of new dances. As a working dance maker, I create much of the work we present. However, Ballet Austin has also commissioned work by nationally renowned choreographers who have brought their ideas and dance poetry to Austin.

Our New American Talent/Dance project alone has incubated the careers of 12 young dance makers in eight years. From classical in nature to avant-garde, from full-length ballets to miniatures, we strive to live this creative value in large ways.

Sometimes we make these works alone. Sometimes they are created in collaboration. We have created work with dancer Jose Greco II, visual artist Trenton Doyle Hancock, and composer Graham Reynolds and developed community projects with the Anti-Defamation League and other major organizations inside and outside of the arts. Collaboration is a way of life with us. Working collectively to solve large problems is, to us, the best way to get the highest level thought and ideas.  I can only imagine this process deepening as we progress forward into the next decade.    

Art has value, and Austin understands that principle. Although art has the ability to entertain and inform, it also convenes communities in dialogue.

Art helps draw lines of relevance into people’s lives by touching that within us which cannot be explained.

And, most importantly, art acts as a historical marker of time with the capacity to teach generations to come about the culture, customs and values of those who came before.  Cultural literacy is valued in this community and I am proud to make Austin my home.

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