Ballerina, Choreographer, Producer
London is experiencing the critically acclaimed Zulu ballet – INALA – the incredible production that brings dancers from The Royal Ballet and Rambert together with South African Grammy award winning choral legends Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
INALA is a fusion of classical ballet, contemporary dance, singing and live music and is the realisation of ballerina/executive producer Pietra Mello-Pittman’s artistic vision.
The Wonderful World of Dance spoke with Pietra about her journey from The Royal Ballet to South Africa to bring this production to the stage.
In the beginning…
So how does a ballerina end up producing a Zulu ballet? To understand we have to go back to the beginning of this inspiring journey…
As a ballerina, Pietra has had an enviable career, dancing with The Royal Ballet after graduating from The Royal Ballet Upper School, where she won a choreographic award in her final year. She joined The Royal Ballet at 18 and was promoted to First Artist in 2008, and has danced around the world in all the classical productions – Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Romeo and Juliet.
While at The Royal Ballet Pietra continued to choreograph, creating roles in Sensorium, Les Saisons, Tryst, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Three Songs – Two Voices.
With a passion for film, music and art production, she collaborated with many artists on multimedia events, photo shoots, music videos and promotions for MasterCard, Van Cleef and Arpels, Agent Provocateur, Christina Aguillera, Shirley Bassey, and Bacardi.
In 2009 Pietra – together with the talented composer Ella Spira – founded the production company fabulously named ‘Sisters Grimm’, all while continuing to dance with The Royal Ballet. I asked Pietra how she made the transition from ballerina, to choreographer, to establishing her own company.
“It wasn’t a leap, it was a gradual transition” where she tried her hand at a variety of backstage roles, which even included make up artist. But it was pulling all the different things together that Pietra enjoyed most and this influenced her to take on the role as company director and set up Sisters Grimm with Ella. Pietra and Ella previously worked together and had a shared ambition and as young artists they wanted to produce new works and new art, “when we started, our motto was ‘think big, be big’.”
Sisters Grimm went onto produce the short film Rapunzel (2009) which was released internationally at film festivals. The company is dedicated to creating cross-cultural collaborations in art, music and dance of the very highest quality, a focus that, she explains reflected her personal story.
“I came to ballet relatively late, I didn’t start dancing full-time until I was 16 and I studied while I danced at the Upper School. I had been exposed to so many different types of art when I was growing up and from being Brazilian and my experience in Brazil – I distinctly remember when I was five seeing my parents getting all dressed up for Carnival in big glittery costumes and hearing the loud drum beat, I remember that and feel that.”
INALA delivers their vision, bringing together a variety of dance, classical and African music, soulful singing, dramatic costumes, deep earthy colour and light to create a cultural and artistic tapestry that takes the audience on an uplifting adventure.
Pietra shares the inspiration behind INALA, “when I saw Ladysmith Black Mambazo perform I was so excited and thought it would be great to put to dance. I knew it would work and it was something that hadn’t been done before.”
Inspired by their performance, Pietra developed a full storyboard explaining that started with an idea and a feeling. Her extraordinary vision saw INALA like a Zaha Hadid creation (the extraordinary architect), flowing in form, “but by letting the artists do their own thing it has become something different, but still it flows.”
With a strong vision and determination Pietra and Ella flew out to South Africa to meet Ladysmith Black Mambazo (LBM). The first time Ella sat down with LBM and started playing, Pietra was unsure if they liked it, but of course they loved it.
This become a defining moment, LBM surrounding Ella at the piano, a young woman, a white woman, this would not have happened in the past. This is important as INALA also celebrates 20 years of democracy in South Africa and everyone worked tirelessly for the show to be ready for the anniversary.
Multi-award-winning Mark Baldwin was bought on to choreograph INALA and he travelled out to Durban for three weeks to work with LBM to understand their dance moves.
Returning to London, Mark began choreographing INALA on two South African dancers, Dane Hurst and Mbulelo Ndabeni from the Rambert Dance Company. Pietra explains, “This is where the magic happened as the dancers understood the language and the movements, inspiring Mark’s animal like movements and tribal language.”
Mark had a specific vision for the choreography and brought in the talented Deborah Gallaway as assistant choreographer, and she took his vision and worked with the dancers and together they explored movements and collaborated in the choreographic process.
Ballerina to producer
As executive producer Pietra exchanged pointe shoes and tutus for schedules and spreadsheets, with her role including auditioning, teaching class, rehearsals, spreadsheets, budgets, contracts and funding.
But it’s not all organisation, as executive producer she sets out the creative vision for the project, Pietra expands, “It’s the creative aspect, set design, costume design, lighting, style of dancing – I had a clear vision about the choreography but I had to let go and allow the experts to create their own, but my visual vision is important. My role is to shape the whole visual aspect.”
Taking INALA from vision to the stage was not without challenges for this young ambitious team. One of the challenges was fundraising as they didn’t have a long history, “we had to share our vision and our video was important for that” – you can watch the stylish video below.
Pietra’s experience with The Royal Ballet influenced her approach as producer, “preparation is really important.”
This she learned at The Royal Ballet, where they put on more productions a year than almost any other company in the world. Sometimes the dancers feel the pressure, but being prepared means that they are able to deal with issues that may arise. Pietra gives her insight,
“I feel that a lot of the issues come from things that are not said, rather than the things that are said. It’s the Latin in me that would rather have it all out in the open and deal with it and move on. That’s why having someone like Ella as a fantastic business partner is so important…we’ve created an INALA family.”
Future for INALA
With critically acclaimed sell out performances you’d be forgiven for thinking that Pietra and Ella’s work is done. But the visionary Pietra is not finished,
“INALA is not complete, it will develop and grow, at the moment it doesn’t have a strong narrative and I would like to work more on the narrative. I see it touring around the world, as a strong brand; there are some stand out dancers in the cast who I’d like to have in residency – although we don’t have a residency yet – and to take INALA to Rio 2016, I definitely see an INALA Brasilia!”
This ballerina is very ambitious and very courageous and creating INALA has been an outstanding success; I asked Pietra what motivates her to go beyond the stage, “I love dance, I’ve always loved it and I’m curious”.
Pietra gained inspiration from the production De La Guarda, which has a fish tank with dancers coming down from the ceiling, she thought “why not have a fish tank with dancers! So I thought that maybe my ideas could become something, and why not try?”
With such a diverse career at such a young age, how does Pietra define herself? “First as a ballerina with The Royal Ballet, with a producer hat and a company director.”
Such an inspiring figure, I asked Pietra what advice she would give to aspiring dancers, “You have to have courage to try. I always advise dancers to try new things, even in class, for example if you try a pirouette the same way and it doesn’t land you need to try a new way or it will remain the same.”
She also advises young dancers not to listen to the negative comments, even though it can be hard to ignore the comments that “you’re line isn’t good enough – in the corps – or you’re not landing your 6 pirouettes as a principal, but its important to put these comments into perspective and to have a bigger vision.”
Her inspiring and comforting words are balanced with to reality of hard work, passion and commitment, “determination and hard work are important, I was brought up to believe that.”
Pietra also advises aspiring dancers not to listen to those who say you don’t have the right size or shape, “when I was younger people told me that I didn’t have the right shape and size and here I am in The Royal Ballet.” It’s important to remember that dancers mature at different stages.
But her last words of wisdom are, “always have safety pins – when I was in class the other day as a dancer, my ribbon tore and I thought ‘I wish I had a safety pin’, I knew that if I was working on INALA I would’ve had a safety pin!”
Juggling award winning choreographers, world-best dancers, costume designers, funding and contracts with her full schedule dancing and running a company, Pietra is highly motivated to succeed, but she says humbly and matter of a fact, “I don’t have anything to prove, but still it is done”.
Click or more information about Pietra Mello-Pittman.