UNDERSTANDING EXIT WOUNDS
Chapter 3: Michelle Martin — Shepherd of Detail
Ballet Austin dancers have finished running through of one segment of Exit Wounds, a new world-premiere contemporary dance work by Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills. Associate Artist Director Michelle Martin stands beside Mills as he crafts this production. While Mills works with the dancers, Martin, with a pen and paper in hand, keeps careful watch on all action within the studio and writes lots and lots of notes.
Martin is Mills’ right-hand, helping him record the creation of — and facilitate the re-staging of — original productions bearing his name, including teaching or “setting” the choreography on dancers with other ballet companies who later license Mills’ works. Martin, who is known in the dance industry as a répétituer, is a unique kind of record keeper. She’s a human database of dance steps, staging decisions, creative inspiration and artistic intentions — a vital link in the chain that becomes the written, oral and movement history of any dance work.
Martin provides similar support to guest choreographers who set works on Ballet Austin dancers throughout the year and also serves as the artistic head for the organization’s apprentice and trainee companies, Ballet Austin II and the Butler Fellows program, respectively.
I caught up with Martin after a full day of rehearsals and meetings to discuss her perspective on the development of Exit Wounds and her unique role in the creation and preservation of new work.
Gattozzi: What is your history with Stephen; how did you come to this role with him?
Martin: That’s funny because we were just talking about that! We go back more than 30 years. We danced together in a company in Indiana for a while, and then we both went to different places. Stephen came to Ballet Austin first, and then I came after that. I was a friend of former Artistic Director Lambros Lambrou, who invited me to come join Ballet Austin. Over the next few years, Stephen and I had a variety of different roles here. I only danced here for one year and then became the ballet mistress while Stephen was still dancing. I also was co-directing the Ballet Austin Academy, and Stephen taught on the faculty. He was doing a lot of choreography the year I was dancing, and then he later became the resident choreographer. But the thing that I find kind of interesting is that I have only ever danced in one of his ballets. I was in Red Roses, the year I was dancing here. What I know about Stephen’s work has come from watching other dancers do it and then from staging and teaching. When they appointed him as artistic director, Stephen asked me to be the associate artistic director.
Gattozzi: So you could say you have been with Stephen for a bit. What’s it like working with Stephen Mills- what do you do while he choreographs in the studio?
Martin: I think one of the things that I have learned because I have been doing this job, sitting beside a choreographer, for a little more than 20 years, is that everybody needs something different. Every choreographer needs a different type of support and sometimes what a choreographer needs could be different between each work. One of the things that I have tried really hard to develop is intuition or awareness of trying to take my cues from the choreographer and what can be helpful. Sometimes, people just need someone to literally turn the music on and off, which is fine. In general, regardless of who I am sitting with, because I know that my job is to take care of the work afterward to coach it and clean it, I am always taking notes. Usually a mixture of choreographic notes as to what the actual steps are and then a lot of notes about the things that the choreographer will say about the quality of movements of any metaphors they use. I use the choreographic notes primarily to start adding when the choreographer starts to decide how something is going to be phrased in the music so I actually have something written down that I can make musical count indicators. Otherwise, it would be really hard to keep track of the music and movement.
And so, I do the same thing with Stephen. It really depends from work to work what he needs. I think the last couple of ballets that he has made, like Belle REDUX / A Tale of Beauty & the Beast and now Exit Wounds — because he is working more collaboratively with the dancers — there is a lot of work at the beginning that doesn’t necessarily involve me. Because working in this collaborative, he tests a lot of ideas. Once he starts putting the structure around the movement, I try to make landmarks around his different ideas. As he starts to arrange the pieces, I write all these little ideas as different sections on separate pieces of paper. As the ballet is structured, I put the papers in a particular order and move them around. Sometimes Stephen will ask me what I like or which I prefer between two ideas. I try to watch it in a detailed way and in a holistic way. Generally, Stephen’s sensibility is so acute that I don’t do too much of that. A lot of the times, because he uses music that is quite complex, and because we hear music the same way, I can help keep track of the phrases, so he knows how many phrases of music before the melody changes. I know from staging works for other companies or making something new, it takes so much extra effort if you have to work the machine for music because you have to find where you have to be in the music. Just having somebody to do that can help keep your focus on what is happening on the floor.
Those are little things, but really what I try to do is to “clear space” around him. Sometimes that has to do with what happens in the studio and sometimes, honestly, it has to do with what is happening in the building. Part of my job is to filter out the things that are really important for him to weigh in on and try to take care of things that are not that important to sort of clear headspace for him. I am not a choreographer, and I have never wanted to be a choreographer, but I can definitely sense being in the studio how consuming that is and how for the work to develop his focus needs to be there. I just try to find ways in which I can help with that. I can’t choreograph the ballet for him.
Gattozzi: What do you think Exit Wounds means for this company? Do you believe this work could be a defining production for Ballet Austin as you see it being created?
Martin: It is interesting because I have been thinking a lot about that. Everybody makes fun of me because I write down details that people think are random…like when there is a group thing or when a people are holding on to one another in complex ways. I often try to write down exactly how these things happen, and I have tried to attend rehearsals to do that detailed work for this new show because I really do feel like this show will be a consequential work that we will do a lot and other companies will want to perform for a couple of reasons. First of all, like Light / The Holocaust & Humanity Project, which has been one of the signature works for Ballet Austin and has garnered us the most attention nationally and internationally, part of the success of the piece was how it was integrated into the community in a way that was beyond the ballet itself. It was interesting to watch because the ballet had so much in it as a work of art, and then there was the way the project connected with the community and the way in which they informed each other. The ballet has strengthened each time we have done it, and the community was strengthened every time we did it because the ballet was stronger. We know more about how to connect with people and how to engage the community. I feel that this work, Exit Wounds, is taking everything we learned in the process of Light and front-loading the best things already to the top. Equally important, I think it is just going to be really brilliant. I can just see how the physical structure is coming together and how many different ideas Stephen that I have never seen him do before.
Gattozzi: This show is a new kind of experience with newly created music, film elements and choreography, while also positioning itself thematically as a social justice piece. What do you believe Exit Wounds will do for the dance world?
Martin: The appeal of Light and the other companies that have licensed that work, has been learning about how to engage their community in a different kind of way around important social issues. I think that with Light we were taking historical events and circumstances and then because of the way Stephen made that work it was open to show how those themes are transferable to certain social circumstances. And I think with Exit Wounds, it is dealing with things that, particularly with the third movement speaking on activism coming from the whole #MeToo movement, are about not only women but the power of “voice.” That is very relevant to the world we are living in right not, particularly in the United States. I don’t think there are a lot of ballet choreographers that really work in that space. I am not saying that there is no one that does that because there certainly are, but I think certain companies and communities are not willing to accept that from a ballet company. Whereas, Stephen has proven, I believe, that he understands how to be a good steward of those kinds of topics — other people’s stories, his own stories, and then these raw, humanistic themes around loss and courage. He’s shown from the work that he has made that he understands how to make dance that respectfully allows other people to connect their story with what they see happening.
A lot of times when choreographers set out to deal with something like that it can become a very narrow perspective and to me, what I see, is a very broad perspective — there are lots of ways into the work. I think in that way, not only is this going to be consequential because it is a beautiful piece of choreography, but also, I think that this is going to have a resonance that other companies will want to have a conversation about with their communities.
Gattozzi: What does Exit Wounds mean to you, more personally. Have you had time to think about this work more holistically for yourself, especially you being a woman in the dance world?
Martin: It is interesting because I kind of have to walk this line back and forth because my responsibility is being the shepherd of the details so that I can be helpful regarding refining the work when Stephen is finished making it. Often, I don’t allow myself the luxury to sort of step back and take it all in until we get a little closer to being done because that does feel like a luxury to me. I try to do that in the way that I can provide perspective if Stephen asks for it or if I am responsible for evoking something because Stephen never tells people what the gesture means. It is really about getting the sense of getting this built.
As I see the gestures more often, I create my own metaphors based on my own experience, and I also have thought a lot about the different themes that Stephen is dealing with and my experiences with those. I am a very reflective person so I do find myself, when I am not here, reflecting on those gestures and themes and eventually I will be able to let both of those things come together once my job is complete. I think that is what is helpful to the work, to see what resonates or what could be more powerful. It could be as simple as how someone looks. We all have had lots of experiences with loss, and my experiences in terms of my family have been very different than Stephen has described. All of my experiences were sudden. My dad died when he was younger than me, which is an interesting thing when you have reached that age. But Stephen and I were in the same company during the AIDS crisis. I remember when he started talking about that story, we had a conversation remembering that company that we danced with together and how I can count on my hand, maybe one or two members, that are still with us. I had not thought about that time in that way in a while.
Gattozzi: What do you hope for the audience when they come to the performance?
Martin: I hope they bring themselves and they understand that is all they have to bring. There are no secrets. There are no secrets hidden in the gestures or anywhere. Each of the dancers has taken his or her life experiences and then put that emotion and focus into the gestures. Ultimately, that is put there by Stephen and the dancers for the audience to take in.
I have talked a little bit before about how art is a dialogue between artists and the audience. The art responds to the audience’s reaction, and the audience responds to what the artists are showing. I think I have become more aware of that concept through my beginning interest in contemporary visual art. That is something that has come from my relationship with Stephen because he is a big art collector. So much of what he makes refers back to paintings that he has seen. Sometimes when we travel and do dancer auditions, he has taken me to a gallery or a museum. It sounds foolish to say, but I just never thought there was anything for me in contemporary art. I have always been connected to movement and music, but he opened a little window of how to look at things. Not in a lecturing, didactic way, but just hearing him talking about a piece helped me see there were no secrets. There is not something in there that you are going to get or not get. The artists had an inspiration when they made it, and it is interesting to read what that is, but at the same time, when it comes down to it, it’s what I am taking away from that work.
Ever since then, one of the things that I actually find the most stress relieving is to go see different artists and galleries. That has helped me understand what it would be like for people who have not seen a lot of dance and what that feeling would be…wondering if they are going to be able to get it because that is what I thought in the beginning. Now, that is something that I seek out.
World Premiere commissioned by Dr. Beverly Dale
APRIL 6–8 | the Long Center
Choreography by Stephen Mills
Music by Claude Debussy, Graham Reynolds, Bryce Dessner, and Joby Talbot
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