Creating art

A new way of thinking using the body of the dancer: Ballet Austin’s New American Talent/Dance

A new way of thinking using the body of the dancer: Ballet Austin’s New American Talent/Dance

Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills offers this essay as part of our coverage of the New American Talent/Dance (NAT/D)

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The first dance to which I was exposed was a televised performance of Act II of the revered ballet Swan Lake. Being raised in a small rural town in Kentucky, I was inexplicably mesmerized by the women’s beauty and the way they were engaging with and reacting to the music. To this day, it remains one of my most memorable dance events. Maybe you never forget your first? Or, maybe Swan Lake is just that good! 

However, as much as I love Swan Lake, my dance life would be very narrow if that dance, with that music, from that period of time was all I could consume. I need more than Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker to live a healthy art-filled life. All are wonderful ballets, but these works represent an era of opulence, chivalry, royalty and romance that is no longer visible in our world.  Like Monet’s Waterlilies and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, they are beautiful representations of someone else’s experience, era and aesthetic.

Today we struggle with different issues than our predecessors, and art’s responsibility is to engage and react in a contemporary conversation with those issues.

Ballet Austin’s New American Talent/Dance project is one method of dance creation that, to me, allows young dance makers to tell us what’s on their minds. Through metaphor and gesture, dance has a unique ability to cut through artifice and decoration to say important things.

 An idea of great beauty in thought and design often has to wait patiently while mere humans intellectually catch up. Cubism, expressionism and neo-classicism were all experiments which had, at least in the beginning, the potential to fail.  

The project identifies three early to mid-career choreographers from across the country, and provides them with world-class dancers and a platform on which to make comment. By taking away some of the financial challenges choreographers face, NAT/D allows mental and spiritual space for the artist to make something special. 

Sometimes the work they make is very complex, at other times simple. NAT/D artists have made political work that has caused uncomfortable blowback for the company. Sometimes the new work is highly dynamic and engaging; and sometimes not as much. However, the reason I created the project was because I’m interested in the ways in which people think about and explain things; dance makers do that through the bodies of dancers.

Paradoxically, I am less interested in the actual product/piece than I am in the process of people coming together, sharing ideas, working out problems and, in the end, making something new from absolutely nothing. 

From the other side of the footlights, the audience engages in a very different conversation. NAT/D is a competitive project with $20,000 in prize money awarded. Additionally, an audience prize is awarded each night. 

The audience takes their role very seriously and engages in a way I hadn’t anticipated when creating the project.  Because their votes are an integral part of the process, it is not unusual to walk through the lobby of the theater and listen to audience members advocating for their favorite work. The audience experience becomes less passive and more active. They really engage in critical analysis of the work.

Swan Lake was considered a failure when it premiered at the end of the 19th century; Tchaikovsky’s music was admired, but the choreography was dismissed. Only in its second life, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, did this beloved dance become legend. 

In thinking about art today, we have to remember that even the most revered work was once new, suspicious, and often harshly criticized.  Balanchine’s great neo-classic work Serenade was derided at its premiere yet, 70 years later, the dance endures as the choreographer’s signature work.

An idea of great beauty in thought and design often has to wait patiently while mere humans intellectually catch up. Cubism, expressionism and neo-classicism were all experiments which had, at least in the beginning, the potential to fail. 

Dance, music, art, literature and technology must continue to progress and refresh. To me, projects like New American Talent/Dance are not only essential in the support of dance makers, but they are essential to the validity, longevity and dynamism of dance itself. By definition, it is a forum for new movement technologies and ideas.

The project allows artists the space, time and financial resources to investigate new ways of tackling complex questions and issues through physical metaphor. The body becomes the teacher. And while NAT/D is a competition, I believe success should be measured through the artist’s ability to share ideas and willingness to engage in this uncertain process called creation.

Austin Photo: Author_Stephen Mills
Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills
Austin Photo Set: News_Stephen_New American Talent/Dance_feb 2012_dancers
New American Talent/Dance at Ballet Austin Photo by Tony Spielberg