Dancing on the Page

Scripting a ballet is an art in itself

| September-October 2010

Almost every culture dances. In Texas, we two-step. In Austria, they waltz. The Congolese do the soukous. And the tango is required learning in Argentina.

Popular dances can range from the formal to the obscene, but for most of us, they consist of a few simple steps that are repeated, with variation.

Beyond swaying and shuffling, though, are the higher forms: choreographed dances performed by professionals, sometimes involving dozens or hundreds of people moving for hours. Ballet is perhaps the most advanced.

Ballet Austin, despite its modest size, creates top-rated dance. The man responsible is artistic director Stephen Mills, one of the country’s top young choreographers of contemporary ballet. Troupes across the country have performed his Hamlet, set to music by Philip Glass. I was listening to Mills talk about his new Firebird at a preview event when I began to wonder how he records his choreography. Then I watched as a ballerina took to her toes, leaned hard to the right, swept her arms behind her, cocked her head even farther to the right, strained her eyes to the left, and then ran in a half circle across the stage. How do you write that down? I just used 40 words to describe three seconds of dance.

Does Mills write the equivalent of a book to describe the movements of every dancer in every two-hour ballet he creates? And how does he synchronize those movements to the music?

“I don’t write anything down. Does anybody write anything down?” Mills asks in a later conversation, with a sly smile at Michelle Martin, the associate artistic director.