Staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a dream come true for Anne Mueller
A Q&A with Grand Rapids Ballet’s Marketing Director, Michael Erickson
Photo by Bailee Columber
A ballet company’s rehearsal schedule is complex and layered; at any given time, the dancers may be working on as many as four or five different productions. That’s why it’s not at all surprising to see Anne Mueller in Studio A staging the final production of our moving 2019-20 season, associate artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada Christopher Stowell’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which will not open until April 24, 2020.
So, when I saw this multi-faceted and amazingly accomplished dance professional taking a rare (and short) lunch break, it seemed as good a time as any to sit down for a lightening-round Q&A to get to know her a little better.
Q: First, welcome to West Michigan. We’re so happy you’re here.
A: Thank you. I’m loving Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Ballet; the vibe is wonderful in both the city and the studios, which makes my job an absolute pleasure.
Anne Mueller staging Stowell;s A Midsummer Nights Dream; photo by Damion Van Slyke
Q: Speaking of Grand Rapids Ballet, what sets a company like ours apart from others with which you’ve worked.
A: Well, every company has a unique culture, of course, but what I’m loving here is the generosity and openness the dancers have in their work process. They seem excited to receive and apply information, which makes the staging process fun and effective. They are taking on their characters beautifully, which is so important in a story ballet, especially one with a fairly complex plot.
Q: Enough about us. Tell us more about yourself.
A: <laughs> Sure. I live in Boise, Idaho with my husband, Lars, and dog, August. I work for Ballet Idaho as Artistic Associate, which is a fancy way of saying I spend a lot of time in the studio with the company dancers teaching class, running rehearsals, staging ballets, assisting visiting choreographers and stagers, and supporting the work of our artistic director, Garrett Anderson. Before my current job, I was co-artistic director of The Portland Ballet, was managing director for a theatre company, and held several positions on the artistic staff of Oregon Ballet Theatre (OBT), where I also danced for 15 years. At OBT, I worked for many years with Christopher Stowell who was artistic director there from 2003 to 2012. Christopher brought an amazing repertoire of ballets to OBT and also choreographed a number of original works. He and I enjoyed working together a great deal on new works, so I frequently danced in his ballets and sometimes assisted him as his choreographic assistant. I was also a co-founder of Trey McIntyre Project and danced for the company during the summers of 2005 to 2007. I’ve staged ballets for McIntyre, Stowell, and Nicolo Fonte and have worked recently with the National Ballet of Canada as an assistant to choreographer Guillaume Côté and as a guest rehearsal assistant on The Second Detail and on Karen Kain’s Swan Lake.
Yuka Oba-Muschiana and Steven Houser in Stowell’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; photo by Bailee Columber
Q: You mention the term “staging” which you’re doing for our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Can you tell our readers what that means exactly?
A: Of course. In terms of my work here now, I’m responsible for teaching the dancers in certain roles all of the steps that they’ll do as they portray these roles; this includes musical, spacing, and qualitative information, as well as elements of storytelling and character. I’m tasked with re-creating the choreography in a way that’s as true to the choreographer’s intent as possible. Sometimes small adjustments can be made to make things “fit” better with the current cast of dancers, but these changes are generally small tweaks rather than major changes.
Q: How interesting! So in addition to teaching the actual dance steps, you’re also an acting coach. Which makes me wonder: What do you enjoy most about dance personally and professionally?
A: At this point in my career — being almost ten years past my performing career — what I love most is connecting with dancers artistically and passing on information to them that I’ve gained throughout my journeys in dance. I love to help them find ways to do things better and to improve. I find it very satisfying.
Q: That’s a perfect segue to my next question: What’s the best piece of dance advice you’ve received and from whom?
A: I’ve received a ton of great advice from many brilliant teachers and coaches through the years, but one that sticks out was, coincidentally, from Christopher Stowell. Early in my time with him, he was coaching me on Balanchine’s Duo Concertant which is one of my favorite roles; he observed I really felt my dancing in my legs rather than my upper body. When he told me this, it shifted my thinking dramatically; in the years that followed, I enjoyed a whole new and different way of exploring movement, and it helped me grow considerably as an artist.
See Anne’s efforts when A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs April 24-26 and May 1-3 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre. For tickets, call 616.454.4771 x10 or visit grballet.com today!
Yuka Oba-Muschiana in Yuri Possokhov’s Firebird; photo by Damion Van Slyke
The Firebird is a magical bird who appears in a number of Russian fairy tales and legends. Even just a feather from her tail is enough to light up a whole room. This magic bird represents the passion and inspiration that is found in many exquisite and unique Russian lacquer works of art and was the inspiration for the Russian tale, The Firebird. The story was the source for one of the most famous folklore ballets composed by Igor Stravinsky under commission from Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. Stravinsky once said that Russian legends have as their heroes men who are “simple, naïve, sometimes even stupid, devoid of all malice, and it is they who are always victorious over characters that are clever, artful, complex, cruel and powerful.”
The ballet centers on the journey of its hero, Prince Ivan. While hunting in the forest, he strays into the magical realm of Koschei the Immortal, whose immortality is preserved by keeping his soul in a magic egg hidden in a casket. Ivan chases and captures the Firebird and is about to kill her; she begs for her life and he spares her. As a token of thanks, she offers him an enchanted feather that he can use to summon her should he be in dire need.
Prince Ivan then meets thirteen princesses who are under the spell of Koschei and falls in love with one of them. The next day, Ivan confronts the magician and eventually they begin quarreling. When Koschei sends his minions after Ivan, he summons the Firebird. She intervenes, bewitching the monsters and making them dance an elaborate, energetic dance (the “Infernal Dance”).
The creatures and Koschei then fall into a deep sleep. While they sleep, the Firebird directs Ivan to a tree stump where the casket with the egg containing Koschei’s soul is hidden. Ivan destroys the egg and with the spell broken, the magical creatures that Koschei held captive are freed and the palace disappears. All of the “real” beings, including the princesses, awaken and with one final hint of the Firebird’s music, celebrate their victory.
The choreographer of our production, Yuri Possokhov, took this tale from his native country and created his own version from among other variations. He changed it to include a love triangle. The Firebird loves Prince Ivan but she realizes that she should allow the Prince to be with the Princess he loves.
See beauty and strength come to life October 18-20 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre. Tickets are available online or by calling 616.454.4771 x10.
Choreography: Yuri Possokhov
Music: Igor Stravinsky
Costume & Scenic Design: Yuri Zhukov
World Premiere: February 28, 2004, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon
Grand Rapids Ballet Premiere: October 18, 2019, Peter Martin Wege Theatre, Grand Rapids, Michigan
For those of you tuning in to keep up with Company dancer Madison Massara’s journey abroad, we have an update! Please read our previous blog post for more information on the program, how she applied, and how she funded her trip.
As you know, she has flown far from home this summer to Prague to attend the International Ballet Masterclasses. Today marks her tenth day abroad, almost the end of her journey. Soon she will be returning home to join us for the 2019-20 season, but until then check out what she has been up to in Europe.
“I had class this morning and variations. In pas de deux class I was living my best life. I danced with a student from Royal Ballet, who was such a pleasure to work with and was very kind. After classes for the day Isabelle Ciaravola (Etoile from Paris Opera Ballet) had an interview with us and it was so fascinating to hear her story and to watch videos of her dancing. A large group of us dancers went out for Pho after class and we had a fun evening of talking and laughing. Excited for another day tomorrow!”
“After dance I walked back to the dorms and came across some more gorgeous architecture then ate and got ready to go out for a fun night.”
“After classes for the day we all went out to this adorable restaurant to celebrate our friend Sophie’s birthday, I had a quinoa avocado salad with pomegranate and grilled veggies (so good). Had a productive fun day and am excited to have some new teachers tomorrow.”
“Today started out great. I had the most amazing technique class with Daria Klimentova and she pulled me aside and asked where I was from and complemented my dancing, and after class had me do a photo of me jumping and her correcting me in the back.”
In total, he danced for over 20 memorable years, all while refining and developing his costume-design skills. Unlike other performers, Ron simultaneously worked in the studio and in the costume shop. During his time as a performer he created countless costumes for short dance works and full length ballets. While in New York, he worked with costume designer Barbara Matera Ltd. to create costumes for Broadway musicals such as Beauty and the Beast, Sunset Boulevard, Damn Yankees, Carousel, Crazy for You, and A Christmas Carol.
Photo by Katie Aaberg. “I am thrilled to be working with a ballet company I have observed for years.”
He received his Masters Degree in Dance from Ohio State University and joined the faculty and staff at the University of Nebraska at Kearney in 2017. During his time in Nebraska, he worked as the costume shop manager for theater and dance, and taught costume design, costume technology, costume history, and ballet technique classes.
Ron’s unique background of both being a performer and costume designer will be valuable in the upcoming season. He states that he has “great empathy for the dancers – having been one myself – and recognize the importance of functionality in a costume. I want the dancers to feel good and comfortable in what they are wearing.”
Welcome, Ron! We are excited to present his work to you in our upcoming season.
Madison Massara is one of our newest company members and a Michigan native. She joined the company as a trainee in 2017 and was promoted to company dancer in 2019. Prior to her time at the ballet, she performed as a Guest Artist in Skye Ballet Center’sThe Nutcracker; competed at YAGP and the Indianapolis International Ballet Competition; and attended various esteemed summer intensives.
“Day 1 in Prague. Got in at 8:30am Prague time and had the whole to day meet tons of new people, settle into the hotel, and explore the gorgeous city all day, witnessing all the beautiful architecture from all around Prague.”
This summer Madison has embarked on a new adventure. Madison spread her wings and soared far from home to Prague where she will be living for two weeks while she attends the International Ballet Masterclasses. The International Ballet Masterclasses in Prague was founded by former prima ballerina, Daria Klimentova. Her goal in creating the summer program was to bridge the gap between professionals and students. She wanted to provide rising stars and young professionals with an opportunity to engage with current artists to benefit from their experience and expertise.
“1st day of classes. I had a day full of dancing, learning, walking around town, and meeting more new people!”
After hearing about the opportunity from a friend, Madison quickly researched the program and filled out an application. Promptly after her submission she heard back with an acceptance. She was going to Prague!
“Ate lunch on the river with a group of friends before our last class of the day.”
But how was she going to get there? Madison was intent on raising the money herself and decided to use the popular online platform GoFundMe as a way to secure funding for the trip. She blasted the GoFundMe through Facebook and with the generosity of her friends and family, Madison was able to fund her trip almost entirely.
“Entrance to the studios. Another fun day of dancing. I had a wonderful class with Thomas Edur (artistic director of Estonian National Ballet) who introduced a lot of ballet philosophy into class which challenged me to reflect and come up with some personal philosophies.”
On July 27 Madison embarked on her first journey across the Atlantic. She said while she was most looking forward to meeting and learning from the esteemed faculty members, she also hoped to have time to explore the beautiful and historically rich city of Prague. She planned to immerse herself in the culture by touring the castles, visiting the medieval Astronomical Clock, attending museums, trying new food, and walking around to soak in the beauty of the city. She giggled when asked if she learned any Czech and replied that she planned on learning some before she left.
“Today was a blast. In the morning I had class with Vladimir, then had another amazing variations class and we worked on the talisman variation.”
Good luck, Madison. Keep up to date with her journey through our Instagram!
“We had a fantastic interview with Thomas Edur (artistic director of Estonian National Ballet) and he discussed his career and philosophy behind ballet. I then went back to the hotel, ate, talked to my brother who is in London doing the Royal Ballets summer intensive, then I went to bed after another tiring yet inspiring day!”
Grand Rapids Ballet School
Hometown: East Lansing, Michigan
Dance experience: 29 years. Received a BFA in dance from Oakland University and a master’s in Arts Development from University of Denver. Danced for various contemporary companies. Performed as a B-girl and a backup dancer.
Favorite movie: Some Like It Hot
Favorite food: Sushi
Best season: Fall
If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Maui
We continue our series of introductions to the famously strong female characters of playwright Henrik Ibsen that appear in Val Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House in Extremely Close April 12-14 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre.
Here we are introduced to Hedda Gabler from the 1890 four-act play. Hedda Gabler is among Ibsen’s most famous works. It would be diminutive to describe this play as a drama about a housewife: The title alone demonstrates Hedda’s reluctance to assimilate into her husband’s family. Instead she clings to her aristocratic background. Hedda appears powerful but has little true agency. She strives, through manipulation and desperate acts, to influence the other humans in her midst. The play examines the struggle for existential meaning within societal boundaries as well as explores the neuroses of the human psyche.
The sound of gunshots catches you off-guard as you approach the newly purchased, stylish manor of Professor Tesman (played by company dancer Steven Houser). You don’t often come to this refined part of town, but he had asked you to meet him to go over a recent homework assignment. You wonder how he affords this home on the modest salary of a research fellow. Not to mention his recent six month extravaganza of a honeymoon. Rumors say his wife Hedda Gabler (played by company dancer Cassidy Isaacson) – now Hedda Tesman – demanded the trip. Perhaps as a reparation for marrying below her means? Some had believed the daughter of the famous general would never settle on a husband. You’ve spent many hours snickering with your peers over the absurdity of the match between Tesman’s earnest but exasperating bluster and Hedda’s class and glamour.
Another gunshot snaps you out of your reverie. The door to the manor swings open and the maids ushers you in to the expansive and beautifully decorated drawing room where Hedda herself sits, polishing a pistol, surrounded by fragrant bouquets.
“The professor will be down shortly. Hedda will entertain you as you wait,” she informs you, and scurries off.
“Welcome,” Hedda says, fixing you with a piercing gaze. “Please sit down.” You make a move towards the chair furthest from the gun she still holds.
“Oh, not there, please. Sit closer to me.” She pats the sofa next to her. You sit, tentatively, close enough to notice that every ten seconds or so her placid profile is marred by a twitch of the eye.
“So, Tesman tells me you’ve been incredibly helpful in his latest research. You may even be part of the reason he has nearly secured his promotion. I suppose I must thank you for your contribution to my husband’s work.” You nod, mutely.
“Well, I expect you used all your words on the research paper.” Hedda sighs disdainfully and rises to place the gun back in its display case. She stays by the window, gazing blankly out.
“The flowers you have here are beautiful,” you babble nervously to fill the silence. “Gifts, I expect? To celebrate the marriage of two souls newly in love?”
“HA!” Hedda snorts, and then regains her composure so quickly you are left wondering if you imagined the exclamation.
“Some do call it love…” she responds vaguely. “But lets talk about you. What do you busy yourself with? Riding? That was a favorite past time of mine as a child. The freedom of it! Or perhaps shooting? Another favorite.”
“No, no. I don’t care for that at all.” You shrink from her, hoping it’s imperceptible.
“Nonsense!” She says cheerily, her eyes suddenly gleaming. “You’ll love it. Here!” She retrieves the gun and places it in your hands, standing over you. “See? Do you feel the sense of control? Doesn’t it feel powerful?”
“Hedda!” The professor’s voice rings from the corridor. “What are up to with our guest?” You breathe a sigh of relief as Hedda removes the gun from your grip.
“We were just experimenting, George. Something a little out of the ordinary. Something of interest. For once.”
“Ahh, my Hedda. Isn’t she lovely, uh?” He moves to kiss her cheek and misses as she pulls away and returns to her post at the window. “Ah, well… Now, come to my study, we’ll talk about that paper.”
He ushers you into his room. Before the door closes you turn to catch a glimpse of this stunning and frightening woman. She stands straight and poised, a picture of elegance apart from her arms, crossed in front of her chest, fingers clenched and nails digging into the flesh beneath her fine dress, as though fighting against a visceral scream.
For tickets to Extremely Close, call 616.454.4771 x10 or tap or click here.