Ballet Austin dances a vivid, unsettled version of Grimms’ Fairy Tales

Natalie Frank, drawing for "The Frog King" for Ballet Austin's "Grimm Tales." Mixed media on watercolor paper.

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.”

(Mills and his partner, Brent Hasty, purchased a set of Frank’s “Grimm” drawings as a promised gift for the Blanton.)

In her Grimm’s tales drawings Frank, who is originally from Austin and is now based in New York, tackles the moments that represent the darkest underside of the traditional tales, which were collected and published in the early 19th-century by the German brothers who were linguists and folklorists. In her decidedly feminist take, Frank the visually interprets the now lesser known aspects of incest, rape, physical violence, and other taboo themes that were phased out as the folktales were translated into English, and certainly by the time they were picked up Disney and the American entertainment industry.

“It seemed like there were whole worlds (in the stories) that needed be told, needed to reconsidered,” said Frank.

Mills and Frank were in discussion recently at the Blanton in what amounted to a live introduction to “Grimm Tales,” Ballet Austin’s new production that Mills has choreographed based on Frank’s artworks. Mills choose three tales — “Snow White,” “The Frog King,” and “The Juniper Tree” — to tell in the 80-minute ballet which premieres March 29-31 at the Long Center.

Natalie Frank, “Frog King Castle,” drawing for scenic backdrop for Ballet Austin’s “Grimm Tales”

Frank created over 30 new drawings, as well as animations, which will serve as enormous projected backdrops for the ballet. She and costume designer Constance Ho­ffman exchanged rounds of drawings for the imaginative outfits, with Frank completing the painting on some of the elaborate headdresses herself.

“All three (of the tales used in the ballet) focus thematically on the idea of hunger,” Frank said. “Hunger for power, hunger for youth, hunger for sex and then physical hunger to. Those were realities of life for 19th century women.”

“I’m recasting (these women) as villainesses, as powerful princesses.”

Slider

Before the public conversation between Mills and Frank, in the Blanton’s atrium, composer Graham Reynolds gave a preview of the lush original score he’s written, an intriguing mix of recorded sounds to which a strings-heavy chamber orchestra will add a live layer.

“I used layers and layers of sound effects, overdubs, and a mix of acoustic, electric, sampled, and synthesized instruments,” said Reynolds. “All of the score is rooted in Natalie’s paintings, trying to capture her raw, visceral, vibrant style and the dark world of Grimm brothers’ stories.”

“Grimm Tales” is the first new production to arrive the auspicious of Ballet Austin’s Butler New Choreography Endowment, a fund based on a $3 million gift from Austin philanthropists Sarah and Ernst Butler that provides support for the company to commission a new ballet every three years.

This is the second full-length ballet Mills has created based on and in collaboration with a contemporary artist. “Cult of Color: Call to Color” in 2008 made a buzzed-about production from the strange, fictive world of Trenton Doyle Hancock, and was remounted in 2014.  And “Cult,” too, had a score by Reynolds, who has composed for Mills several times.
For Mills, with “Grimm Tales,” the unsettled tone of the ages-old folktales compelled.
“These stories are still here because they are relevant.”
Natalie Frank, drawing for “The Juniper Tree” for Ballet Austin’s “Grimm Tales.” Mixed media on watercolor paper.