2018/19 BEST DANCE CONCERT: Ballet Austin
2018/19 BEST CHOREOGRAPHY: Stephen Mills
2018/19 BEST ORIGINAL COMPOSITION/SCORE: Graham Reynolds
2018/19 BEST COSTUMING: Constance Hoffman
2018/19 BEST DIGITAL DESIGN: Howard Lerner (based on the original artwork of Natalie Frank)
2018/19 BEST DANCER: Aara Krumpe ("Snow White"), Oliver-Greene-Cramer ("The Frog King")
They were meant as cautionary tales, to keep us on the straight and narrow. But many familiar childhood stories started as grim reminders of what happens when naiveté meets wickedness, and the balance between good and evil is in question. In this new, full-length work, made possible through the generous support of the Butler New Choreography Endowment, Artistic Director Stephen Mills delves into the underbelly of some of your favorite fairy tales and shows you the real beauty of the lessons they impart. Inspired by the visual art of Natalie Frank, the world premiere of Grimm Tales will leave you unsettled, unafraid, and undeniably hungry for more.
CONCEPT AND CHOREOGRAPHY BY STEPHEN MILLS
INSPIRED BY THE ARTWORK OF NATALIE FRANK
MUSIC: Graham Reynolds
Graham Reynolds' original score for Grimm Tales is funded in part by the Texas Commission on the Arts.
DRAWINGS: Natalie Frank
SCENIC/PROP DESIGN: George Tsypin
COSTUME DESIGN: Constance Hoffman
LIGHTING DESIGN: Tony Tucci
PROJECTION DESIGN: Howard Werner
STORY: Edward Carey
This production runs approximately 80 minutes without intermission and is recommended for ages 10 and older.
“Grimm Tales,” a ballet opening Friday in Austin, Texas, has queens and dwarves and a frog-kissing princess—but doesn’t end happily ever after. The Ballet Austin production is based on tales from the Brothers Grimm and inspired by the gritty drawings of Natalie Frank, an artist who has spent the past eight years exploring the gruesome scenarios behind “Snow White,” “Cinderella” and other folk stories.
Stephen Mills, Ballet Austin’s artistic director, choreographed the ballet and commissioned a score from composer Graham Reynolds. Ms. Frank shaped the look of the production and created 35 drawings for the sets. Some drawings are animated and will be projected on to scrims onstage; others will be concurrently exhibited in Austin’s Lora Reynolds Gallery until June 8. Ms. Frank worked with Tony-nominated designer Constance Hoffman on costumes for the 22 dancers in the ballet.
“What I think a lot of people don’t know is that the Grimms’ tales began as women’s oral tales, so they’re a way for women to represent their fears and anxieties and desires at a time where they were quieted by the church or the state. So they are a little bit transgressive," says Frank of her source material. "Stephen's company feels like a contemporary set of dancers: the bodies, ethnicities, genders--it's very nontraditional, in the same way these tales aren't traditional."
Ballet Austin artistic director and choreographer Stephen Mills was inspired by an exhibition of New York-based artist Natalie Frank’s work and accompanying book, aptly titled “Grimm Tales.” Frank’s colorful drawings underscore the provocative nature and feminist voice of the Grimms’ stories, an element that has also been adapted into the world of ballet. Frank’s work will be incorporated into the production through onstage projections and animations, and she has teamed with Tony-nominated costume designer Constance Hoffman. While Hoffman is charged with the ballet’s costumes, the pair are collaborating on the textile design, and the entire process has taken a collaborative shape, with each element—including set design by George Tsypin and music by Graham Reynolds—impacting the various parts.
This premiere production offers an exciting look into the world of contemporary ballet choreography and its ability to address popular culture. The numerous vantage points of hunger persisting throughout the performance point out the dilution (or perhaps sweetening) of Disney’s interpretations.
Here, the violent questioning of agency over one’s body, coupled with the gender expectations of dance, create a key distinction. Further, the performance creates an impact that cannot be found in the classical stories we have grown accustomed to in ballet—sparking an urgency to create contemporary work the public is craving to experience.
Once upon a time, Stephen Mills, artistic director of Ballet Austin, was presented with a special gift: a grant that would fully endow the creation of a new full-length contemporary dance. However, there was one condition. Everything must be entirely new, from the music and choreography to the costumes and design, even the narrative itself.
Mills set off on an extensive search for the elusive fruit of inspiration — a spark that would ignite his vision. It was one fateful day at the Blanton Museum of Art that he happened upon an exhibition of drawings entitled Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm. Enchanted by the works — depictions of the age-old fairy tales that were at once gruesome, aggressive, vibrant, and fantastic — he knew he had to find the artist.
Artist Natalie Frank is most well-known for a series of portraits she did subverting the happily-ever-after Grimm Brothers tales in favor of their more sinister roots and an emphasis on female power. In Grimm Tales, a collaboration with Ballet Austin that debuted this past weekend, Frank’s vision is given new life in the sets and costumes in this production, which reimagines three Grimm Brothers fairy tales through a feminist lens.
It is difficult to render such a multimedia collaboration without one element overshadowing the other, particularly when combining dance and visual art. One of the many challenges Frank and Mills faced in the conception of this work was finding a balance within this liminal space. What they created was a stunning dialogue between the dancers and Frank’s paintings as they floated and panned behind them, together providing a more holistic understanding of the fairy tale as it unfolded.
Put together three masterful artists — Stephen Mills, Natalie Frank and Graham Reynolds — at the peak of their inventiveness and skill and you end up with a tour de force like Ballet Austin’s “Grimm Tales.” It is almost impossible to register in mere words the force and originality of this reimagining of three Grimm fairytales.
What more to say about Mills and Ballet Austin, as well as the Butler New Choreography Endowment that made this supreme achievement possible? All I can say is that we are extremely lucky to see it first. I’m betting that other ballet companies around the country will be do everything possible to make sure they can restage Austin’s unforgettable “Grimm Tales.”
The three dances in Ballet Austin’s “Grimm Tales,” which plays March 29-31 at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, do in fact borrow their storylines from the more than 200 fairy tales collected by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 19th century. Nevertheless, director Stephen Mills initially came to the material, not by rereading them, but through the fluid, fantastical art of Natalie Frank, the Austin-born artist who now lives and works in New York City.
Blanton Museum of Art curator Veronica Roberts, who set up “Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm” at the Austin museum in 2015, shared some of the artist’s dreamily symbolic images with Mills in advance of the exhibition.
“I loved them so much,” Mills says. “I visited her show at the Drawing Center in New York to see them in person — I think there were 30 of them, I don’t remember how many precisely — but I was struck by how much narrative content she could fit into one frame. And her unabashed use of color. They caused me to think more deeply about these stories that we have been surrounded by since childhood. The stories are really dark. I wanted to tell the real stories, not the versions that children get today.”
Once, in a thriving city by a river, there was a company of dancers who brought to their fine stage many stories of life in their times. The company was called Ballet Austin, and the man who created most of the company's dances – and certainly the most ambitious and wellreceived of those dances – was named Stephen Mills. One day, while viewing a series of paintings in one of the city's more progressive museums, Mills was inspired to devise a new work of ballet for his company, a work based on the paintings he'd seen: the vivid and unsettling illustrations of tales that had long ago been gathered by the Brothers Grimm, as rendered by a former inhabitant of the city: Natalie Frank.
"I saw Natalie's exhibit at the Blanton," says Mills. "And, earlier, I'd seen her show at the Drawing Center in New York, which was maybe 30 drawings. When 'The Brothers Grimm' came to the Blanton, the space was larger and the show was more robust. And when I was standing there, looking at the things, I thought it would make a good dance. And someone came up to me – someone who I didn't know, but I guess they've seen Ballet Austin and some of the things that I do – and she said, 'Wouldn't this make a great ballet?' And I thought, Well, thank you, yes, I think it would."
Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills first saw Natalie Frank’s lurid, subversively feminist drawings of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales in 2015. The exhibition “Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm” had traveled to the Blanton Museum of Art, after generating buzz in New York on its debut at the Drawing Center which had organized the show.
“I was drawn most to the color, to how each drawing had so much narrative in it,” said Mills recently. “Here were these very old, very dark and often violent stories and yet they were presented with empowered female figures. That juxtaposition really fascinated me.”
In the world premiere of Ballet Austin’s GRIMM TALES, artistic director Stephen Mills transforms twisted versions of some well-known classics into something truly unique. Blending classical and contemporary ballet, Mills’ choreography lends itself to the challenging and at-times dark subject matter. And through three brief tales, Ballet Austin’s company dancers are able to not only bring to life grim stories, but also individually shine—displaying a wide variety of talents and technique.
From misshapen artwork that evokes the style of Picasso to choreography that pushes boundaries, Ballet Austin’s GRIMM TALES is a unique ballet that delivers the unexpected in a format that feels strangely familiar. Based on three famous Grimm versions of The Frog King, Snow White, and The Juniper Tree, the ballet reimagines classic tales through a new lens—where both parts of dualities like vibrancy/darkness and classical/contemporary, share equally important roles on the stage. Artistic director and choreographer for the company, Stephen Mills, challenges the format of classical ballets with this noir interpretation, but still brings the classical and contemporary movement that had audiences applauding for more.
Good artistic collaborations entail multiple paths of individual talents merging into one, reaching a generally agreed upon destination or vision. A mash-up of sorts, where the sum is always greater than the parts. But what differentiates the good from the compelling? Those are the collaborations that completely immerse you in a new world and leave you wanting to discover more. They are born of a curiosity taken to its limits and gratefully follow the road that serendipity lays out in creating connections for all involved. In short, the very best collaborations are the ones that bring each artist to a new place, just as they do the audience.
Such is the case with Ballet Austin’s latest original work “Grimm Tales,” which takes center
stage at the Long Center this weekend for its world premiere. The piece, choreographed by Stephen Mills, Ballet Austin’s artistic director, features visuals inspired and created by New York-based artist Natalie Frank, who happens to hail from Austin. With just three performances starting on Friday, “Grimm Tales,” the inaugural work commissioned by the Butler New Choreography Endowment, promises to be one of the year’s highlights in performing arts.
In early 19th century Germany, brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm started collecting oral stories passed down in families by the women. These tales described what life was like at that time, when dangers lurked around every corner and dying in childbirth was common. The Brothers Grimm, as they became known, refined the tales they collected and eventually published them. Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, and Rapunzel were just a few of the hundreds of stories.
This weekend, the tales take on another life as a ballet in Ballet Austin’s Grimm’s Tales. Choreographed by artistic director Stephen Mills, the ballet is based on three of the fairy tales, Snow White, The Juniper Tree, and The Frog King. Just don’t expect “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” because this ballet takes its inspiration from the original fairy tales and their dark themes. They also come with a feminist perspective, represented through the artwork of Natalie Frank. In fact, it was Frank’s drawings that sparked the idea for the ballet.
There’s a longstanding tradition of artists collaborating with ballet companies, from Picasso’s Cubist sets for the Ballets Russes to Chagall’s costumes for the Magic Flute and Firebird. But rarely does an artist’s work inspire an entirely new ballet, as it did this past weekend when the Ballet Ballet premiered GRIMM TALES, a production based on drawings by the New York-based artist Natalie Frank, who also created many of the resulting performance’s visual elements. Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills first saw Frank’s feminist reinterpretations of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales at the Drawing Center in New York in 2015 and, later, at the Blanton Museum in Austin.
“First you see the colors, then the textures, and then you start to look at what’s going on narratively and—whoa—this is some strange stuff. It’s sensual, it’s sexual, and it’s very dark,” he said. In the past, he has staged such classics as The Nutcracker and Giselle, but it’s “exceptionally rare” to have the opportunity to produce contemporary ballet," he said. "This felt like just the material to do it."
“As a choreographer, I’m always looking for new narratives,” Mills told artnet News, noting that he had previously worked with artists Trenton Doyle Hancock and Michael Smith. “I was there looking at Natalie’s pieces, and someone came up to me and said ‘wouldn’t these be wonderful as a ballet?'”
Grimm Tales will be the first new ballet staged thanks to Ballet Austin’s Butler New Choreography Endowment, based on a $3 million philanthropic gift that will allow the company to commission a new piece every three years. (This type of generosity in the performing arts is “something that happens very seldomly,” Mills noted.)
“The thing that drew me in was Natalie’s drawings have this very sensual and sexual and violent character that in many ways more closely reflects the original tales, which were not as sanitized as the ones that we know today,” Mills added.
Ballet Austin performed the world premiere of “Grimm Tales,” a collaboration with artist Natalie Frank. Stephen Mills choreographed the full-length piece, inspired by the artist’s drawings of The Frog King, Snow White, and The Juniper Tree. Revolving around the theme of hunger—physical, sexual, and literal—New York-based Frank created over 30 drawings to work from with costume designer Constance Hoffman set designer George Tsypin.
"We all brought tales that we loved from the Grimm’s," [Frank said]. "I’ve always loved The Frog King. I thought that story had both a strong heroine, humor, sexuality, hilarious violence, and transformation. We thought that would be a great way to start the ballet. And we end the ballet with The Juniper Tree, which is one of the darkest of Grimm’s fairy tales. And in the middle is Snow White."
Even when the first volumes of Grimms’ Fairy Tales were published in the early 19th century they were not regarded as suitable for children, even though they were entitled “children’s tales.” As Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills explained, “there was such a disconnect from the stories I heard as a child: they were cleaned up by Disney, sadly I think.” Some of these tales are grim indeed, and they form the basis for this world premiere ballet performance of GRIMM TALES at the Long Center in Austin.
That interpretation can only be described as a landmark event in early 21st century ballet. The fusion of the visual, the dance, and the music is powerful, and certainly rose to the level of shocking at times. The ever-changing Chagallesque backdrop by Natalie Frank against which the dancers perform gives us a portal into another world, the fairy tale world spun by the Grimm Brothers.
Grimm Tales presents three classic stories from the translations of scholar Jack Zipes: The Frog King, Snow White, and The Juniper Tree. Though these stories have most often been presented in a family-friendly manner, they were originally studies in the grotesquerie of everyday life, especially for women, who were their original tellers-surreal tales of horror meant to both titillate and frighten.
Frank's drawings and Mills' work emphasize feminist perspectives within a tradition where women were either portrayed as weak or villainous, despite being their narrators. Natalie Frank's reimagining presents the full force of the Grimm Brothers while updating its concerns and aspirations for a new generation.
Frank, who is originally from Austin and is now based in New York, is internationally known for wryly subversive figurative drawings and paintings. For Grimm Tales she has created over 30 new drawings, as well as animations, to serve as backdrops for the ballet.