Natalie Frank’s deliciously dark fairy tale drawings, the stars of her critically acclaimed 2015 show at New York’s Drawing Center, are being transformed into a new ballet. Grimm Tales will debut in March at Ballet Austin and will feature a new score by Graham Reynolds and original choreography by Stephen Mills, paired with sets and costumes designed based on Frank’s work.
The seeds for the show were planted when “Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm”—which has also inspired a book, Natalie Frank: Tales of the Brothers Grimm—traveled to the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas. Mills, a choreographer for the Ballet Austin, is also an art collector. He met Frank after arranging with his partner to purchase a set of her “Grimm” drawings as a promised gift for the museum.
“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?'”
It was a match made in heaven for multiple reasons. The ballet, of course, has a long history of staging productions based on fairy tales, and many artists have helped bring dance performances to life: Robert Rauschenberg collaborated extensively with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and Pablo Picasso made sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes, for instance.
But on top of that, Frank is a lifelong fan of ballet, with a love instilled by her mother from a young age. And dance has proved a fruitful point of inspiration for her work in the past. In 2017, she juxtaposed ballerinas with dominatrixes for the erotic paintings in “Natalie Frank: Dancers and Dominas” at Chicago’s Rhona Hoffman Gallery.
So when Frank got the call from Mills, the decision wasn’t difficult. “I was like ‘oh my God, that’s the thing I always wanted to do,'” she told artnet News.
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.
“The Grimm stories are so rich and powerful, and I loved discovered their female-driven roots,” Frank agreed. “I tried to really focus on the women in tales, and their capacity to be evil, princesses, and everything in between.”
The ballet will adapt the “The Frog King,” “Snow White,” and “The Juniper Tree” fairy tales. “All three focus thematically on the idea of hunger,” Frank said. “Sexual hunger, hunger for realizing one’s own identity, hunger for youth and physical hunger. All of those things were realities of life in the 19th century, especially for women.”
The production will feature 22 dancers, with choreography that draws on a ride range of dance styles. (“I don’t have a gold-plated classical ballet background,” Mills admitted.) The story will take place against a 20 by 30 foot animated backdrop, with Frank’s vibrantly colored drawings projected on stage and coming to life as an immersive environment designed by George Tyspin.
It’s a new type of work for the artist, who is making roughly 30 new pieces for the production. A major inspiration has been the work of Marc Chagall, who famously designed the sets and costumes for Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird in 1945.
The costumes, made in collaboration with designer Constance Hoffman, were particularly challenging for the artist. “I’m used to focusing on the figure, but with these, the figure is the dancer,” she said. Frank relied on Hoffman to help replicate the effects of the gouache and chalk pastels she normally uses in her drawing. “She obviously knows what will suit the body for movement,” Frank said.
As with any new project, the ballet version of Grimm Tales presents new challenges—which the artist is happily embracing. “It’s a chance to bring a complete world to life,” Frank said. “It’s a huge gift.”
The world premiere of Natalie Frank’s Grimm Tales, commissioned by the Butler New Choreograph Endowment, is at the Long Center, 701 West Riverside Drive, Austin, Texas, March 29–31, 2019.