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Sisters Grimm; How A Dancer & A Songwriter Are Writing Their Own Theatrical Fairytale

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How do you know when you’ve enjoyed interviewing somebody?

It’s when afterwards, the strip lighting in the loos at Soho’s exclusive Hospital Club feel like flashbulbs, the bags under your eyes have miraculously, sadly momentarily, disappeared, and you feel a little…well…bubbly – full of joie de vivre.

It must be a joy to work in the world of theatre and ballet – the stage, the glamour, the theatrics – the music – being able to throw a full on wobbly and be forgiven seconds later because you have an “artistic temperament”. Heck, people even expect it of you!

Beats being a journalist, or a critic, any day I’d say.

If The Sisters Grimm – that’s Ella Spira and Pietra Mello-Pittman – the subject of this interview – can perk you up this much over coffee on a freezing Thursday afternoon, just imagine what they can do if you wisely choose to attend one of their shows.

Ella and Pietra are two of the UK’s most exciting and successful original theatre show producers.

They are best known for fusing the legendary sound of African male choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, with ballet to create the GRAMMY award nominated show INALA.

INALA sold out the Edinburgh Festival, sold out a UK tour, performed five times at the world famous Chekhov International Theatre festival in Moscow, and returned to the UK for 6 sell-out nights at Sadlers Wells, due to popular demand.

The music from the show, which Ella composed alongside Ladysmith, was released separately, and won a GRAMMY nomination.

Sister Grimm Ella has worked with the likes of Bruno Mars, remixing his music, and David Arnold, the composer of several James Bond scores. This Christmas, she wrote a song for UNICEF that was performed live on the South Bank and broadcast by Channel 4.

Sister Grimm Pietra has danced all the classic ballets with the Royal Ballet, and her ability as a choreographer and creative director has helped the duo win a “Women of the Future” nomination, for Arts and Culture.

So, it’s clear, they are not really 2 Grimm sisters after all – they are 2 successful artists, and together they run a successful, entrepreneurial, theatre production business.

This is their story, or at least as much of it as you can squeeze into a 45-minute coffee and a chat. Not that either drinks coffee – bubbles and oysters are more their thing – effervescent, glamorous and sexy. And you should see their shows!

It began with Ella and Pietra’s first production together – a version of Rapunzel the Final Chapter in collaboration with the Royal Opera House which was low on budget but high on originality, standards and critical acclaim.

The breakthrough came when the “Sisters” pitched the performance to the Baron of Birkenhead, Sir Tony Hall, then Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, (now Director General of the BBC). He loved it and was happy to invest in the project through the Royal Opera House.

For the duet between the Prince and Rapunzel, Pietra and Ella decided to cast Alexander Parish – a relative unknown at the time, Parish has gone on to become “a world star”, the first British ballet dancer to be employed by the prestigious Mariinsky ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Set-up photographs showing Inala @ New Theatre, Oxford. Part of a UK tour.
(Opening 23-06-15)
©Tristram Kenton 06/15
(3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

“He was beautiful”, says Pietra of her one-time protégé, and just as importantly for the sisters, he was nice. “We love to work with nice people”, the “Sisters” both agree.

So why Sisters Grimm – presumably the named contains a healthy dose of irony? Or perhaps it reflects their steely entrepreneurial drive?

“For us, the name is kind of synonymous with the best traditions of story-telling and folklore, but with a modern twist.”

Sisters Grimm is in fact the name of a children’s fantasy series written by Michael Buckley between 2005-12, in which two sisters grow up together being shifted from one foster home to another, largely ignored and uncared for, until they are sent to live with their Grandmother, in a town of “Everafters, real life characters from fairy stories, and enter the family business, running a detective agency.

Perhaps the choice of name indicates the joy Pietra and Ella feel, having been granted their childhood wish to be creative, fantastic even, every day, taking what they learned growing up as 2 dedicated professionals, to influence, inform and share with an audience.

But there is also, by necessity, a business-like resourcefulness, illustrated by a story from one of their first productions. Spotting a lorry dropping off trees for the theatre set, Ella noticed the truck floor, covered in wood shavings, and realised they would make the perfect “carpet” for the floor in Rapunzel.

“I stopped the men in their tracks”, she remembers, “and made them gather up all the shavings”. It’s the kind of whimsical yet fearless, pragmatic, yet winning thriftiness that the modern entrepreneur is made of. The big vision married to the economic reality of tight budgets and wafer thin margins.

In theatre, you raise the money for the show, then you hope, against all reasonable hope, to recoup it all over the duration of the run.

Success in 2009 allowed Pietra and Ella to research and produce their biggest artistic and commercial success to date – INALA – the Sister’s first full length musical dance production, featuring South African singers Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who shot to fame as backing singers on Paul Simon’s seminal Graceland album in the 1980’s, and sanf for Nelson Mandela when he was inaugurated as South Africa’s President.

“We had this idea of fusing different cultures together”, Ella explains; “using my composition skills and Pietra’s eye for choreography and casting.”

It worked – INALA means “an abundance of goodwill” in Zulu, a phrase that neatly encapsulates the success of the production.

“Ella took me to see Ladysmith”, remembers Pietra, “and we loved them – but we thought we saw a new direction we could potentially take them”.

The production was in development for 5 years and “went through a few changes in direction – we originally positioned it as something for the Royal Ballet, but it didn’t quite work out”.

The Royal ballet wanted something “small scale, abstract and classical”, but Pietra and Ella felt “it was a bigger thing – so we decided, we’ll do it ourselves.”

The two friends and colleagues put together the storyboards, choreographed the entire production (the way they wanted to do it)  and raised the capital they needed to fund the project.

Whilst some would call it a coup securing the services of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, no doubt the feeling had been mutual. The music, co-written by Ella and Ladysmith, had the indelible Mambazo spiritual stamp, but the modern piano, the dramatic dance scenes and the bursts of light and sound embellishess the magnificent vocals – which drove audiences, and critics, wild.

Worth all the effort then. The shows dancers, comprising former and current members of the Royal Ballet and Rambert, and choreographed spectacularly by Mark Baldwin, sold out at the Edinburgh International Festival, where it debuted, and the Edinburgh Playhouse, followed by Sadlers Wells.

It went on to sell out a 9-concert hall venue tour around the UK, and played at the Royal Variety Performance, in front of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge; Wills and Kate; whom the Sisters met later that evening.

“I don’t know how you do it”, Prince William told them, “I can barely touch my toes”. His wife, (“very tall”, according to a starstruck Pietra), congratulated them for keeping her husband on his toes throughout the performance.

In 2015 Pietra and Ella took the show to Moscow and “were super-pleased” with the reception: “culturally, the audience responded the same way – in fact, they invited us back.”

Ella & Pietra at Sadlers Wells

2 relative newcomers to putting on major theatrical performances, both Ella and Pietra had pulled themselves up through the unforgiving world of theatre and dance by their bootlaces.

Ella was born and raised in Gloucester – her grandfather had come to Britain as a Jewish refugee during the second world war, and her parents were both fine-artists.  She began writing music aged 16 and joined the BBC a year later – she has gone on to work for BAFTA, the Royal Ballet, Arakan Creative and Universal Music.

Pietra was born in Brazil to a Brazilian mother and English father, and raised in the UK. She trained as both a ballet dancer and ice skater, eventually choosing ballet and joining the Royal Ballet at the latest possible stage, when she was 16, performing in Swan Lake, Sleeping, Beauty, The Nutcracker, Giselle, and Romeo and Juliet.

Nobody expects an easy ride in the world of theatre, and the two were apprehensive about working with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a close-knit group that has seen 3 generations of the same family perform as group members.

“It was intense, but thankfully we all gelled”, says Ella. “We take pride in looking after everybody who works for us”. The Sisters like to think they inspire loyalty in their team members, and have worked with the same people across many different projects.

So how do you follow a hit like INALA? By returning to your roots.

Pietra took Ella to Brazil, and they took in more than a few shows, having a ball at the same time, but also seeking inspiration for a new show.

Voices of the Amazon is the result, “a tale of a water spirit from the Amazon River, who ventures deep into the rainforest in search of a cure for her dying sister. She soon finds that the forest is not as abundant as it was.” The performance will premiere at Sadlers Wells in June.

“We can’t announce too many details”, they say, except that the show “has a rural and environmental backbone – it was poignant to see first-hand what is happening to the rainforest – it struck us massively”, they say.

Whilst it might be easy to stereotype anybody in the theatre world as a thin-skinned luvvie, the reality is almost the complete opposite. Its a testament to both the “Sisters” to have made it in such a tough industry.

Both exude business acumen, and indeed they “see a lot of synergies between our business and businesses in other industries.” If it hadn’t been theatre production, both would have forged successful careers elsewhere. But the fact they have each other, and a shared of theatre and dance, provides that entrepreneurial “special sauce”.

They can describe, for example, the kind of metrics around the success of INALA that you would more normally here within social media, or tech startup circles; the shows generated a PR reach of 33m “unique engagements” (as well as selling 60 thousand tickets).

“We’ve always had to persuade people “we can do this”, throughout our careers, and we’ve refined our sales pitch – people say yes to us now”, explains Pietra.

Sir Tony Hall said yes when they were just “a dancer and a song-writer”, and they are both eternally grateful to the doyen of British dance.

“We have a ten-year business plan” explains Pietra, “but we work backwards from the goals we set ourselves”. They are like mountaineers; they know where they want to be – in the rarefied air at the top – all it takes is putting the plans in place to make sure they get there.

“We have a very extensive network nowadays”, Ella says, “and we start from there.”

“We’re both hustlers together”, adds Pietra.

Pietra is better with money, they decide, often having to bring Ella down to earth when her ideas become budget-bustingly outlandish. Pietra is the eyes, Ella the ears, each agreeing to keep a different sense if they had to sacrifice one or the other.

“Our approach is different to anybody else’s, say Pietra, because we occupy all areas of a production”.

“I’d be prepared to risk everything for the sake of one production”, muses Ella. Pietra tells a story that when they landed at Heathrow recently they noticed 2 wheelchairs that had been left out beside the baggage carousel.

“Were they for us?” Pietra giggles; “I said to Ella, well, that’ll be us one day, we’ll still be doing this, but we’ll both be old and in wheelchairs.

Both Sisters are currently single, but Sisters Grimm is their baby, they say. They are proud parents. They’d love to mimic Andrew Lloyd Webber, they say in response to my question “how big can this can get?”, “but more for his genre than his success”, before launching into discussions about “residencies”, “takings”, and “long runs”.

In fact, Pietra and Ella have just returned from a working holiday to New York, in which they took in as many shows as they could, which they loved.

Grammy Award Nominee, World Music Album
Ella Spira and Pietra Mello-Pittman, Sisters Grimm

They love showbiz, and they loved attending the Grammy’s, where they met Stevie Wonder, and just missed out on seeing “Gaga”. They tell of their horror upon somebody asking them if Charlotte Church was a ballerina.

“People don’t understand how much goes into doing what we do” reflects Ella, we talk to people who tell us they think “they have a show in them”.

They don’t, for the most part. For starters, few people “enjoy” the kind of intense relationship that the Sisters Grimm do. “There’s a magic between us”, says Ella – “we’re like an old married couple”

“Or like Ant and Dec”, adds Pietra, mischievously.

Both know how to put on a show. Of that you can be sure – and if you aren’t, go see for yourself.

 

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