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

By Eva Kahn

Two years ago, a friend suggested to Stephen Mills, Ballet Austin’s Sarah & Ernest Butler Family Fund artistic director, that he pay a visit to the Blanton Museum of Art to see a ground-breaking exhibit by visual artist Natalie Frank. Six months ago, Mills began giving his dancers pointed movement exercises and recorded more than 300 clips of them dancing. Now, just weeks before the world premiere of his newest dance production, GRIMM TALES, Mills is furiously working with an impressive team of award-winning creatives and his company of dancers to bring three reimagined, and slightly fractured, fairy tale worlds to life on stage.

Recently, we sat down with Mills to discuss the origins of his new, full-length story ballet, his creative process, and the art of storytelling through dance.

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.

“I was able to have a conversation with her and tell her how engaging I thought the work was. Two years later, we find ourselves here, just about to premiere this work.”

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.

“Graham Reynolds, I’ve worked with many times. Being a film composer in addition to all the other things he writes, he has a really good sense of creating not just beautiful music, but an ambiance. This score is sinister in so many ways, it really helps to bring Natalie’s drawings off the page and onto the stage.”

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.

“These things are all very alive in our personal lives, this hunger for things. I’m working with the dancers to bring forward these concepts through metaphor, so we’ll see what happens.”

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.

“In any narrative dance, there are moments of big sweeping movements, and there are quieter movements in which the story gets pushed forward. So I make these little sections of dance and try to connect them not so much with mime — because I think that’s an old fashion concept that people don’t quite understand in a contemporary way — but by developing gestures that people will naturally understand.”

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.

“I’m not a particularly creative person in terms of creating an original story. Other people do that well. I try to find stories that I’ve been inspired by. I’m drawn to narrative stories for dance because I think that there’s relevance in these stories even though some of them are very old. These stories tell human stories with our foibles, fears, hopes, and dreams — that’s why we still do them.”

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.

“One of the most interesting things to me as I started to focus on these kinds of fairy tales is that if you drill down deeply into them, you understand that the power of these stories is the power of the woman. As it pertains to GRIMM TALES, it’s my job to find those elements within the story. Because if children show up at this performance, I want little girls to understand that they’re not put on this earth to be rescued, they’re on this earth to be powerful. And if this dance can somehow inform that, then it’s positive.”

GRIMM TALES

WORLD PREMIERE

Commissioned by the Butler New Choreography Endowment

March 29–31
The Long Center

Tickets at balletaustin.org

CONCEPT AND CHOREOGRAPHY BY STEPHEN MILLS
INSPIRED BY THE ARTWORK OF NATALIE FRANK

MUSIC: Graham Reynolds
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 70 minutes without intermission
and is recommended for ages 10 and older.

#GrimmTalesATX

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