Even as it streams through a sound system in one of Ballet Austin’s studios, Mendelssohn’s music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” sounds undeniably romantic and playful.
At a recent rehearsal for the balletic version of the Shakespearean comedy — artistic director Stephen Mills’s cunning interpretation of the Bard’s ethereal tale — it’s time to practice the playfulness.
As the mischievous fairy sprite Puck, Jason Moser tries out different ways of effecting all the fun-loving antics of his capricious character, running through variations of coy glances and impish gestures, matching beats with Mendelssohn’s plucky music.
However, later that day, Moser and the other dancers will shift gears entirely.
No sooner will Ballet Austin present “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Long Center on Sept. 13-15 than the company will immediately head to Israel, where they will tour “Light: The Holocaust and Humanity Project,” Mills’ riveting memorial in dance to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of hatred.
Ballet Austin will dance “Light” at the Akko arts festival, then in Tel Aviv and finally at Jerusalem’s Gerard Behar Centre.
“This is a huge milestone for us,” says Mills.
“From the beginning of the project, there were discussions of maybe someday taking ‘Light’ to Israel. But for an American ballet company that’s not specifically Jewish to be invited to perform its Holocaust memorial ballet in Israel — that’s an absolutely enormous honor.”
“Light” premiered in 2005 and then was remounted in 2012. (Hear the story from Stephen Mills here on TedxSMU AND here from the Voices On Antisemitism- U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Podcast Series.) The production was also staged by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and the Colorado Ballet. Ballet Austin also performed “Light” in Miami last season.
Along the way, “Light” has garnered considerable critical praise, netted an Emmy Award-winning documentary produced by KLRU, an award from the Anti-Defamation League and spawned numerous collaborations with cultural, social service and religious organizations.
(Mills has seen work performed internationally before when Ballet Austin has taken short dances to international festivals in France and Canada.)
While in Israel, the dancers — along with a delegation of Austin community leaders including representatives from the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Federation — will stay at the Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz in Western Galilee and meet with community and cultural leaders.
And all that will come after just one day off for the dancers, after they have finished with three performances of “Midsummer” at the Long Center.
That means that for the past several weeks, the company has been in an intense and emotion-bending schedule of rehearsals preparing for both shows at once — ballets that couldn’t be more opposite in spirit, mood and artistic temperament.
Moser grins with good-humored bewilderment. “I think my tactic is going to be extreme compartmentalization,” he says. “It’s just so extreme. We have to go from Stephen’s lightest to heaviest work.”
Indeed “Midsummer” and “Light” represent capstones of Mills’ career.
The smart manner in which he fuses classical ballet with theatrical, physical comedy is a hallmark of just one facet of the choreographer’s accomplishments. Mills’ “Midsummer” landed the company and the choreographer at the Kennedy Center in Washington in late 2001, where the show played to sold-out houses. That success meant that Mills was subsequently commissioned by the Kennedy Center to create “The Taming of the Shrew.”
At the other end of the artistic spectrum, though, is “Light,” an eloquent minimalist-infused exploration in dance incorporating the swirl of issues surrounding the Holocaust: hatred, bigotry, fear, intolerance and, ultimately, survival, hope and understanding. With its abstract narrative and symbolic characters, “Light” intentionally avoids any specific imagery of the Holocaust per se, making the dance more a metaphor for any situation where bigotry and persecution reign. (However, Mills used the story of one Holocaust survivor — 94-year-old Houston resident Naomi Warren — as the genesis for the ballet’s narrative arch.)
Arriving at inspiration to create dances of such opposing sentiment holds no surprise for Mills.
“I think any artist’s work is representative of his or her personality in extremes,” says Mills. “I think I have a gregarious side of my personality, and then I have a side that can be quite dark, where I don’t think the most beautiful ending is always the one that’s going to happen.”
“Most people have (those extremes) in their personalities,” Mills continued. “But we don’t always see it. An artist lays it all out there for everyone to see.”
And since Mills is laying it all out there, then his dancers must, too, he says.
Physically, it’s a challenge, says Moser, who is dancing “Light” for a third time. Emotionally, there’s a lot of shifting around in the course of the day as both shows are rehearsed and the dancers engage with the auxiliary discussions and readings and study that have been part and parcel of the company’s preparation for “Light” since the project’s creation.
“I don’t think people assume the dancers have made it so personal, and that they have prepared and studied outside the studio so much for this ballet,” says Mills.
Moser likens “Light” to a memorial sculpture or artwork created to mark an event of importance and of gravity.
“People ask us what can we know of (the Holocaust) and how we can do what we do. But ‘Light’ is a memorial, and we as dancers are the dancing, living memorial,” he says.
“There’s a stretch at the end of ‘Light’ where I break from the group and begin walking in a circle. I walk for a long time, and I have a long time to think. I think about all the people currently in refugee or human trafficking situations, of the people in Syria and the Middle East. There’s definitely a here and now to (‘Light’). You don’t have to transport yourself back into history to be aware of the issues the ballet addresses.”
But before “Light,” there is the task of amusing Austin audiences with “Midsummer.”
“The trick is to focus on the physicality of what we dance first, then layer on the emotion,” says Moser. “We have to zero in on the dance first.”