Dance Review: GRIMM TALES (Ballet Austin)

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by Tony Frankel on April 22, 2019

in Dance,Theater-Regional


Born in Austin and now living in New York City, artist Natalie Frank created 75 works based on the stories of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Using gouache and chalk pastel, the images are almost a blend of Marc Chagall and Irving Albright. There’s a delicious, nightmarish, psychologically unsettling quality to these extraordinary pieces — which is perfect for the Grimms, whose fairytales are far more frightening and gruesome than Disney dwarfs and petulant princesses.

The energetic, eloquent, effervescent, expressive quality and colors so impressed and inspired Ballet Austin’s Artistic Director Stephen Mills while gazing upon Frank’s works locally at the Blanton Art Museum that he decided to create a story ballet from the ground up. Well, three narratives, actually, the world premieres of which were presented the last weekend of March at the very crowded Long Performing Arts Center in an intermissionless evening that proved you can go gnome again.

“The Frog King,” “Snow White” and a jaw-droppingly gruesome “The Juniper Tree” — which has a pie with boy filling! — made up Mills’s Grimm Tales, 80 minutes of imagination overload. As if having Constance Hoffman’s whimsical, outrageous, colorful costumes and collaborator Ms. Frank’s moving drawings as a multi-media rolling backdrop projected by Howard Werner weren’t enough to have on board, Austin-based composer Graham Reynolds created a brand new score. The result is a chamber ballet which had trouble filling the Long, but there were plenty of delicious morsels.

The fantastical opening which had a silhouetted parade — almost like shadow puppets — of the characters we were soon to meet was as thrilling an opening as you can expect. Also refreshing was that we had as much character movement as we did dancing, and although the movement was a bit repetitious, the pas de deux between the Princess and the Frog and Snow White and her almost assassin The Huntsman were both astounding.

The Evil Queen twirls villainously and goes en pointe with ferocity eating a boar’s heart (thinking it was Snow’s), so it seemed odd that Snow’s ensuing dance — after almost getting killed — was lacking in fear and terror. The four dwarfs were lacking character (we don’t know where the other three were), but they were comically tall. Repetition also occurred in the Snow White storytelling: the queen gives a tight corset to Snow, she faints; a poison comb, she faints; a poison apple, she faints dead (well, in a coma, actually); unfortunately, Mr. Mills didn’t do enough to set the episodes apart.

Reynolds’ music was only made different throughout all three tales not so much by melody but inflection: mid-eastern, Celtic and other world music, while gloriously orchestrated, seemed better-suited for a Cirque extravaganza. I tell you, I was absolutely floored by what Mills took on, and boy is he ever on the right track, but he’s much much more successful with creepy than playful, especially in “The Juniper Tree,” when the storytelling was crystal clear (the Stepmother in “Snow White” ain’t got nothing on the unsettling Titus Andronicus-like stepmom in “The Juniper Tree” who cuts off her stepson’s head, bakes it into a pie, and serves it to dad). There was beauty everywhere, and the dancers were spectacular with awesome facial expressions and rich athleticism, but the evening as a whole seemed to get baked in a pie of good intentions, only to be swallowed up by an inappropriate venue.

photos by Anne Marie Bloodgood

Grimm Tales
Ballet Austin
Butler New Choreography Endowment
The Long Center for the Performing Arts
701 West Riverside Drive in Austin
ended on March 31, 2019
for future shows and more info, visit Ballet Austin

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