We recently spoke with Sisters Grimm, made up of former Royal Ballet Ballerina Pietra Mello-Pittman and Grammy nominated composer Ella Spira. Sisters Grimm is an exciting and dynamic performance company, creating productions that cross cultures, borders and languages.
Their 2019 production INALA celebrates diversity and African culture. It is critically acclaimed and Grammy nominated.
Below, Pietra and Ella share their story, experience and the inspiration behind their performances.
1. Can you tell us more about Sisters Grimm and your backgrounds?
We met in 2008 the year Ella was nominated for the Channel 4 Talented Newcomers Award for production music and when Pietra was still a ballerina in the Royal ballet. Pietra had won a choreographic competition in her graduation year and after joining the company in 2002 started producing and collaborating on many different projects with artists from different artistic and cultural backgrounds. Everything clicked into place when we started working together and we founded the company in 2009.
2. What inspired you to start the company?
We wanted to make a difference in the live entertainment industry and had very big ambitions about the work we could create together. We formed our company to produce our first work as Sisters Grimm, called ‘Rapunzel the Final Chapter’, which was in co-production with the Royal Opera house and was the first time a dance film ballet film had been filmed in that way at the Royal Opera house with a world-class film team.
3. You have a wonderful selection of performances. How did you combine your skills to create them?
We are very different but share the same vision and have different strengths to add to the mix which we’ve been told is a perfect balance (and we agree)!
Music and movement: Our shows always start with us producing the music which Ella writes in collaboration with a singer and songwriter from the territory we are working in and whose story we are telling and culture we are celebrating. When Pietra hears Ella’s music different ideas come to and the stories grow from there. We both have big visions although I (Pietra) always say “ Ella wants to get to Mars, and I’m totally up for that, but need to work out the petrol!”
4. Your performances raise awareness, for example, The Voices of the Amazon is about climate change. Why do you feel that it is important that performances send a message, as well as tell as story?
We think it’s important that shows make a difference by moving people and showing things in a way that might make them be seen differently i.e. look and feel different to before. Through uplifting emotional journeys shows can make people engage and connect with things that might seem far away or that maybe they hadn’t connected with and thought and or felt about in a particular way.
5. What do you think the role of theatre and live performance should be in raising awareness of key global issues? Do producers and storytellers have a responsibility?
We think it’s important that work on the stage is relevant and believe it can raise awareness of important issues and doesn’t have to avoid them. There are different ways you can do that, and we choose to not make our work political or negative because we want to make people feel good and for them to have a transformative experience that they will remember positively forever and pass on to others.
6. Why do you think that diversity and inclusion is important in live performance and theatre?
It’s important because If the work isn’t showing and isn’t in of itself diverse, then it is not representing the audience that is observing it and it won’t be relevant to that audience. it should be inclusive because everyone should have equal access to experience and engage with shows and not be excluded by the nature of its content or pricing.
7. Sister's Grimm is an amazing concept for live performance. Can you tell our audience what makes it so special, and how you are 'breaking the rules’?
Things usually get put into boxes and exist in these individual separate categories for a particular discipline or genre of entertainment, but we fuse them and unite them in a way that is different and accessible. We have classical ballet and contemporary dance alongside different cultural traditions with live music and live singing.
Also, we’re not old-school, and the way we produce our shows is outside of the box and not necessarily following what has been done before. We are really creative in our approach to getting things done to the highest standards.
8. What are the biggest challenges you have faced, and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge is funding. We had an investment fall through with complications and issues around the uncertainty of Brexit and so we secured a loan against Pietra’s own personal home. “I was absolutely willing and ready to do that, because I believe so much in our work and knew what we would achieve great things with that capital, which was to have a West End Premier with our show INALA and also Asia Premier in Singapore Marina Bay Sands, then we were then invited to perform at Hampton Court Palace for Prince Harry‘s concert followed by an incredible night where we filled the Royal Albert Hall in an incredible in a show on World Ballet Day and in Black History Month prior to touring China for the first time so it really was the most fantastic and successful year to close 10 years of Sisters Grimm and launch our second decade .
9. As well as amazing live performances, you also focus on inspiring young people into careers in the arts. Can you explain a little bit more on how this works, and why you believe that this is important?
We have our own social impact and schools’ program that we launched ourselves with no financial support and run everywhere our shows play. Young people and their families from lower Socioeconomic areas who would not otherwise be able to attend, can for free and we run workshops at school is at the theatre to inspire around the themes of our shows and how they were put together with a focus on all the different careers in the industry and various routes to them. We believe in the saying, “You cannot be what you do not see” and we feel the school system lets down a lot of people and doesn’t introduce the huge variety of careers across our industry. To date we have had 6000 participants in our program and the letters we’ve received from our audience, young people, teachers, and family members have been incredibly moving. We arranged a coach to come up from Gloucester with a group of amazing young people most of whom had never left their estate let alone come to attend a red carpet evening at the Royal Albert Hall and at the end when all the mobile phone lights were out and we had a standing ovation of one of the most diverse audiences the Albert Hall has ever seen it was a moment I’ll never forget.
10. And as two strong warrior women, what have been the highlights of working together?
Definitely the Royal Albert Hall was a highlight, it was the largest venue we had ever filled, and we had scaled up to play it. Everything about it was huge, especially the response from the audience and it was the last show in the UK in 2019 which was 10 years since we conceived the idea and five years since it premiered to mark 20 years of democracy for South Africa in 2014. Our second moment highlight would be our 10-year anniversary when we took our slate of shows into the Ministry of Sound Club in London for an immersive event World show where we had 68 performers across our slate of shows introduced by Jeremy Irons and including performances by Joely Richardson and Alfie Boe.
Today, Sisters Grimm, in collaboration with 28 year old Arabic songwriter DB Gad and film director Shantanu Suri, is a response to lockdown, have released their brand new single and music video 'Just Saying Hi'. The production, which has been organised from Dubai is a powerful message of unity during lockdown and these trying times. WOW!
You can view the video, and find out more about this amazing campaign here.
Thanks so much ladies for bringing us music and performance at a time when it's needed most! For more of this, please follow them on Instagram.