News

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.

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Jaime Lynn Witts as Belle in Stephen Mills' Belle REDUX/A Tale of Beauty & The Beast. Anne Marie Bloodgood, Courtesy Ballet Austin.

Growing up, I was always the one who didn't have the right body or the right feet or even just the right look. I never had that encouragement in the studio that things were going to work out for me, but I was always determined.

I didn't train at a big ballet academy, but I do think I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, with parents who always supported me. I started in dance with creative movement classes in my hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania. I had some really wonderful Russian and Ukrainian ballet teachers from a young age, but it was frustrating because I didn't have the things they were looking for. You grow up seeing those pictures and videos of classical ballerinas and you know what it's supposed to look like. To not have the right body or feet when you're younger is devastating.

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News
Ballet Austin's Aara Krumpe in The Firebird. After 20 years, this is Krumpe's final season with the company. Photo by Tony Spielberg, Courtesy Ballet Austin.

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.

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News
Kansas City Ballet Dancers Tempe Ostergren and Dillon Malinski. Photo by Kenny Johnson, Courtesy KCB.

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.


New Peter Pans at Ballet Austin and Kansas City Ballet

Never Never Land becomes a reality this week with two exciting new productions. Kansas City Ballet presents world premiere choreography by artistic director Devon Carney in Peter Pan May 11-20, while Texas audiences can experience the Austin premiere of Paul Vasterling's acclaimed Peter Pan May 11-13. We love this fun trailer that Ballet Austin put together.

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News
Stephen Mills with Ballet Austin dancers in rehearsal for "Exit Wounds." Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood, Courtesy Ballet Austin.

Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills is not known for shying away from heavy themes; his Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project has been performed by companies around the country since its inception in 2005, and April 6-8 Ballet Austin presents the world premiere of Exit Wounds. Exit Wounds is about acts of courage big and small, broken down into three chapters, all deeply personal to Mills.

We touched base with Mills about the inspiration behind this monumental work and how to stay upbeat when working with dark subject matter.

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Ballet Careers
A scene from Stephen Mill's "Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project." Photo by Tony Spielberg, Courtesy Ballet Austin.

Ballet excels at defying gravity. Lightness, ethereality, wispiness, symmetry, lineal order, chivalry and blissful endings to well-worn tales bestow on ballet a reputation as an art form that embraces divine beauty and design. But themes of grief, trauma, death, war, annihilation, exploitation, abuse, oppression and genocide do not frequently skim the surface sur la pointe. Bearing weighty burdens has traditionally found a place in the realm of modern dance in works such as Martha Graham's Lamentation, or Paul Taylor's image of Armageddon in Last Look.

But beyond shimmering tutus and pristine arabesques, there are other reasons why heavy issues seldom appear on the ballet stage. Taking on a serious subject requires a serious treatment. A ballet about terrorism could easily trivialize the subject through melodrama or prettification. Classical vocabulary was born from noble demeanor in the royal courts; in the wrong hands, it can seem limited in registering the mood of a sordid subject or for expressing disturbing behavior. Add to that the industry's marketing directors and board members, tempted towards steering directors and choreographers away from challenging ballets for fear of poor ticket sales.


New York Theatre Ballet performs "Dark Elegies." Photo by Darial Sneed, Courtesy New York Theatre Ballet.

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Health & Body
Krumpe in The Firebird. Photo by Tony Spielberg, Courtesy Ballet Austin.

Morning whirlwind: As a mother of two boys, the a.m. hustle is hectic for Ballet Austin's Aara Krumpe. But she always makes time for a 15-minute home workout on her Pilates reformer before company class. She uses the apparatus to warm up her feet and calves and do crunches and arm work. "By the time I walk in the studio, I can already feel the backs of my legs and my core," she says.

Favorite tool: During breaks between class and rehearsals, Krumpe stretches and uses a yoga block for support. "I focus on keeping my hips loose and open." To stretch her psoas, she'll lie down with the block propped under her tailbone and let gravity do the rest.

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Ballet Careers
Pixabay

Need some inspiration for staying in shape this summer? These four dancers know how to balance rest, cross-training and fun to start off their next season right.


Photo by Charlie McCullers, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.

Jackie Nash

Atlanta Ballet

Typical summer break: mid-May–August

On rest: I need to take one solid week, at least, to let all those last bits of the season go. After Nutcracker we push straight through until May, so a lot of little things in my body need to heal, and I want to have some mental space to go over how the season went.

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Ballet Stars
Jaime Lynn Witts. Photo Courtesy Ballet Austin.

Jaime Lynn Witts' persistent, can-do attitude is the secret to her success at Ballet Austin.

How do you divide your career between talent and pure determination?
You need equal parts talent, determination and luck. Someone needs to see you, feel like you're interesting enough to hire and have a spot available in their company. I don't really look like a typical ballet dancer—and plenty of people told me that it would never happen. I had to have the determination to keep going in spite of that.

You have had such a long career at Ballet Austin. What's your secret?
Being open to trying new things, whether it's different styles of movement or different ways of generating material. Especially when I first joined the company.

Are you more of a rehearsal or performance person?

While I absolutely love performing, I'm more of a workshopping person. When we are in the studio experimenting with movement, artistic director Stephen Mills will give us an idea to play with, and then ask “Do you think you can...?" The answer is always “yes," even if I think it's impossible. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but I love the challenge of trying to figure it out.


Which role has been the hardest and why?
Dancing the role of the Survivor in Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project. It contains some of Stephen's most modern choreography. Then there is the emotionally challenging task of telling this woman's story of fear, segregation, dehumanization, survival and hope. While I could never begin to comprehend the atrocities of that event, the educational materials we were given and the opportunities to speak with survivors and visit the Holocaust memorial in Israel were experiences that have impacted my life far beyond the stage.

What's the most challenging part of your job?

It's hard to find balance in the ups and downs of the season, from the anticipation of casting (the surprises, whether exciting or disappointing) to the highs of performing to rehearsing a ballet you're not that interested in. You invest so much of yourself into your work that it's difficult not to be emotionally attached to it all.

Describe your dancing in one or two words.
Musical and fearless.

If you could invite anyone in history to dinner, who would be on the list?

I'd love to invite Balanchine and Vaganova, and some history-making women like Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks.

What advice would you give young dancers?
Take in as much art as you can, wherever and whenever you can. See as much dance as possible, of all styles. You have YouTube. Take advantage of it! And if in the end your ballet training doesn't lead you where you'd like it to, you'll look back and see all of the other things it has given you that you'll use the rest of your life.

Witts in "Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project." Photo by Tony Spielberg, Courtesy Ballet Austin.


Which role has been the hardest and why?
Dancing the role of the Survivor in Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project. It contains some of Stephen's most modern choreography. Then there is the emotionally challenging task of telling this woman's story of fear, segregation, dehumanization, survival and hope. While I could never begin to comprehend the atrocities of that event, the educational materials we were given and the opportunities to speak with survivors and visit the Holocaust memorial in Israel were experiences that have impacted my life far beyond the stage.


What's the most challenging part of your job?
It's hard to find balance in the ups and downs of the season, from the anticipation of casting (the surprises, whether exciting or disappointing) to the highs of performing to rehearsing a ballet you're not that interested in. You invest so much of yourself into your work that it's difficult not to be emotionally attached to it all.


Describe your dancing in one or two words.
Musical and fearless.


If you could invite anyone in history to dinner, who would be on the list?
I'd love to invite Balanchine and Vaganova, and some history-making women like Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks.


What advice would you give young dancers?
Take in as much art as you can, wherever and whenever you can. See as much dance as possible, of all styles. You have YouTube. Take advantage of it! And if in the end your ballet training doesn't lead you where you'd like it to, you'll look back and see all of the other things it has given you that you'll use the rest of your life.

Ballet Careers

Ballet Austin's Stephen Mills stretches his dancers and his audiences.

On the brink of insanity, Hamlet struggles with three alter-egos in a sequence that blends balletic precision with modern dance elasticity. By fusing the timeless with the contemporary,  Ballet Austin’s 2000 production of Shakespeare’s classic cemented the company’s reputation for bringing form-breaking movement to old-fashioned storytelling. It also put Artistic Director Stephen Mills on the map as both an innovator and a traditionalist.

 

The two may seem at odds, but they merge in Mills. As a student at Northern Kentucky University, Mills trained in classical ballet but went on to work primarily as a contemporary dancer with The Harkness Ballet and The American Dance Machine. When he became artistic director of Ballet Austin in 2000, after dancing with the company for 12 years, he broadened the repertoire beyond small mixed bills to produce full-length classical and contemporary works.

 

Mills, now 50, also threw out the ranking system. He wanted to give all the dancers a shot at a wider variety of parts. “Our artists know that if they work hard enough, they can perform principal roles,” he says. “It encourages dancers to continue to achieve.”

 

Twelve of Ballet Austin’s 20 current dancers have come through Ballet Austin II, a two-year apprentice program for less-experienced artists. The group of 10 dancers performs its own repertoire and augments the main company in larger ballets. “In the apprentice company, they’ll have spent time with us, so we know them well,” says Mills. “It makes for a good work environment.”

Mills is just as mindful of which choreographers will mesh with his dancers. Although the repertoire mainly consists of Mills’ own narrative works, he regularly programs Petipa and Balanchine ballets and seeks out artists still building on their initial impact, such as Viktor Kabaneiv and Thaddeus Davis. “Most companies are looking for who’s the new hot brand out there,” he says. “The mid-career artist gets lost. And my focus has been to expand that repertoire.”

 

To help foster these relationships, Mills developed the New American Talent/Dance Competition in 2006. With funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the biennial event gives three dancemakers 40 hours with the company to create a 20-minute piece. Ballet Austin dancers perform the pieces before a panel of judges and an audience (both get a say in which choreographers win the prize money). A few of the better-known finalists include Amy Siewart, Thang Dao and Dominic Walsh.

 

Having a steady stream of visiting choreographers has furthered another of Mills’ goals: to stretch his audience’s perception of what dance can be. Though the company’s hometown has a reputation for welcoming innovation, Mills has been careful to push gradually with the more confrontational pieces, such as his Light: The Holocaust & Humanity Project.

 

That’s not to say Mills plans to stop pushing any time soon, not with his audience and especially not with his dancers. Mills wants to ensure that the company consistently works on new material. “I choose ballets that will expand not just the dancers’ bodies, but their intellect as well,” says Mills. “Dancers are on their own path, and it’s my respon­sibility as a director to mentor them and help them achieve their goals, whether or not those goals are ultimately dancing.”

Think you've got what it takes to be the next Christopher Wheeldon? Ballet Austin hopes so! The Texas company's biennial choreographic competition, New American Talent/Dance, is currently seeking entrants for the 2012 edition.

 

The contest brings the top three finalists to Austin to create a new 20-minute contemporary work on the Ballet Austin dancers. All three pieces of choreography will premiere in front of a renowned jury and a live voting audience in February 2012. Up to $20,000 is at stake.

 

Deadline for entries is March 30. Click here for more.

 

 

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