The Dancemaker: Stephen Mills on GRIMM TALES’ origins, his creative process, and storytelling through movement

Artistic Director Stephen Mills and Ballet Austin dancers in the studio, at work on choreography for GRIMM TALES. Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood

We’re looking for the big picture of the story of this collaboration. What was the origin point?

“This project started as the result of a conversation I had with a friend of mine who is a curator at the Blanton Museum of Art. They put some images in front of me, and I was really drawn to the color and the way in which she [visual artist Natalie Frank] was telling these very familiar stories in a way that was not childlike at all. I was just blown away by the technique of this artist and her vision.

How did the nitty-gritty of the collaboration start?

“It’s a piece of theater, not performance art. It’s important to put a collaborative team around it so that the context of the work looks a particular way, the sound environment tells a story, and the dance is supported by all these sorts of things. It was Natalie who brought Constance Hoffman (costume designer) and George Tsypin (set designer) to the collaboration. After investigating, we decided that we were going to tell not one story but three stories. It was important to wrangle these stories into one cohesive unit. Edward Carey (dramaturge), who is a renowned fairy tale expert, was able to put them in order and suss out the common themes so that I could do my job and bring those to life visually.

Ballet Austin dancers in rehearsal for GRIMM TALES. Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood.

What are the overarching themes that are guiding the collaboration and being infused into different aspects of the production?

“There was a lot of political upheaval going on at the time these stories were written by the Brothers Grimm, but one of the prevalent things during this time period was hunger. In each of the stories, [we explore the question] ‘what is the hunger?’ In The Frog King, it’s a sexual hunger. In the story of Snow White, it’s a hunger for beauty. In The Juniper Tree, it’s this hunger for power.

Ballet Austin dancers in rehearsal for GRIMM TALES. Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood.

What does your creative process look like with the dancers? How do you blend metaphors into the narrative of the story?

“When I make a dance, I involve the dancers a great deal. In October, we began a workshopping process. I divided the dancers into groups, and I would give them movement exercises to develop a movement vocabulary that is not choreography, but the beginning of choreography. Now, as we’re into the making of the dance, I can take those 300-plus little clips and pull out the things that are most interesting, and develop those ideas into a cohesive piece. As I’m looking at these clips, some things look very obviously like a little girl skipping, so maybe that goes into Snow White. There’re allusions in each movement that makes them clearly in a particular bucket.

What was your first encounter with the Brothers Grimm fairy tales? Putting GRIMM TALES in the constellation of your other notable story works, what drew you to the particular stories that you’ve chosen to tell?

“When I was a child, the stories of the Brothers Grimm were just childish stories, and I didn’t really have a love of them. It was only when I became older that I now understand how they relate to us now, that I fully understand them and appreciate them. Basically, they were there to scare kids into not doing naughty things, but there’s so much more to them than just that.

Stephen Mills and Ballet Austin dancers in rehearsal for GRIMM TALES. Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood.

What surprising things have you learned while interacting with these stories?

“These stories were originally told by women, generally the caretakers of children. Like most things, the Grimm brothers stole these stories. Because they were men, they had the power to wrangle these stories into a form that could then be sold. But these original stories were created by women. We forget that part of it.

GRIMM TALES

WORLD PREMIERE

Commissioned by the Butler New Choreography Endowment

March 29–31
The Long Center

Tickets at balletaustin.org

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Ballet Austin

Ballet Austin

Through excellence & stewardship, we create, nurture and share the joy of #dance. Led by Artistic Director Stephen Mills