Mills created the confrontational, distinctly contemporary ballet in 2005 after spending 18 months researching the Holocaust, when Germany's Nazi party exterminated more than 6 million Jews during World War II. The ballet is set to contemporary music by Steve Reich, Evelyn Glennie, Michael Gordon, Arvo Part and Philip Glass.
Critics raved about the piece when it debuted in Austin, Texas, and the Pittsburgh Ballet performed it in 2010. Ballet Austin is now taking it on the road, performing in Miami this month, at Washington's Kennedy Center in June and at three Israeli cities in September.
Mills said his work was inspired by visits to Nazi death camps in Europe, the Holocaust memorial in Israel and interviews with Holocaust survivors. But he says "Light/The Holocaust and Humanity Project" is deliberately abstract to be about all forms of intolerance and violence.
"We're not going to Israel to teach anybody about the Holocaust," explained Mills, who said the harassment he's suffered as a homosexual informed his work. "I don't equate bullying with systematic murder ... but the other side of it is that suffering cannot be measured, nor can someone's capacity to endure."
Mills works with groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Co-existence Project from Israel and other groups to develop educational programs that run for a month before the ballet takes the stage. Any ballet company that wants to stage the dance must agree to organize similar programs.
"Art can only start a conversation; people solve problems. But hopefully art can be a catalyst to get people thinking about things in a way they don't ordinarily," Mills said.
In Israel, organizers want to use the ballet to address intolerance within Jewish society. In Miami and Denver, the educational programs focus on anti-Semitism and bullying.