Storybook ballet with a contemporary twist

An alumna dances in Ballet 180’s latest production.

Dancers rehearse the upcoming piece on the Brothers Grimm. | COURTESY SARAHKIM VENNARD

For the past two winters, Erin Brooke Grothouse has played Snoopy in her contemporary ballet company’s rendition of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

“I keep getting typecasted as animals and like, the weird things,” Grothouse said. “But it works for me because I would be one of the more jazzy, contemporary, modern dancers in the company.”

“I’m the least like a ballerina,” she added.

The 2014 BFA dance alumna will take on another animal-themed role this April, starring as the clever feline Puss from the fairy tale “Puss in Boots,” one of four short stories told through dance in the show “Tales From Brothers Grimm.”

“Puss is actually pretty cunning, very manipulative of situations, but smart, cool, calm, collected,” Grothouse said of her character.

Grothouse, along with five other company members from Ballet 180, will perform in the company’s mainstage show at Rosemont College’s Rotwitt Theater of McShain Performing Arts Center on April 30 at 3 p.m.

To prepare for their performances in “Tales From Brothers Grimm,” Grothouse and her fellow dancers began teaching the children’s book versions of each of their stories to children at Paoli Library in Paoli, Pennsylvania as part of Ballet 180’s outreach program, Move 360.

“It definitely gave me a good background for what my character was doing,” Grothouse said.

Between the main four performances of the production, children from Move 360 will also perform mini-versions of other Brothers Grimm fairy tales, like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Hansel and Gretel.”

“It’s a great way to connect literacy to dance,” said Kelly Murray Farrell, Ballet 180’s director and founder.

Farrell, who studied in the master of landscape architecture program at Temple’s Ambler Campus from 2009 to 2012, hopes to reconceptualize story ballet through her production.

“You see the story ballet of like, ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Swan Lake,’ and I love them, they’re great, but as a contemporary ballet company, I wanted to make sure we were doing storybook ballet, but in a different way,” Farrell said.

To differentiate her performance, Farrell decided to focus on condensing the show’s four tales and only highlighting chosen parts from each story.

In addition to “Puss in Boots,” the show will also include performances of “The Fisherman and His Wife,” “Rumpelstiltskin” and “The Frog Prince.”

Each of these tales has a different style of choreography, Farrell said. “Rumpelstiltskin” is edgier, while “The Fisherman and His Wife” relies on contemporary movements and fluidity. “The Frog Prince,” Farrell said, has the most traditional choreography of the four tales.

“The Frog Prince is a little more classical. It’s on pointe,” Farrell said. “It’s very much what you picture as a fairytale ballet.”

Grothouse said the choreography from “Puss in Boots” is contemporary with a “Spanish flare.”

“It definitely has some extra sass,” she said.

One of the challenges Farrell has faced in choreographing these “Tales From Brothers Grimm,” is incorporating the miming used in ballet, she said.

“There are standard movements that mean standard things, like ‘Let’s dance’ or ‘Will you marry me?’” Farrell said.

“But because we had such specific things that we were trying to say, like ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ I created a specific phrase of movements that for us means ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’” Farrell added. “So whenever they do that phrase of movement, it’s like they’re spelling out the name.”

Costuming for the production also presented some challenges.

Jo-Anne Frazier, the production’s head costume designer, said making the costumes “danceable” required special considerations.

“I have to design a costume differently if there’s going to be partnering,” Frazier said. “I can’t put them in some kind of a slinky dress if they’ve got to be lifted because the dress would go up to their chin.”

Frazier also designed the production’s costumes with each individual narrative in mind.

“We did some of what I would consider period pieces from the era and what you might traditionally think of,” Frazier said. “Then you look at some things like throwbacks in Disney, Disney princesses as they’ve been through the ages.”

“When you think of ‘Puss in Boots,’ half the people go to ‘Shrek,’” she added. “You kind of want to play with people’s expectations that way because then you have character recognition.”

Some of the production may be up for interpretation, though. Grothouse said she hasn’t decided whether she will portray her character as male or female.

“As a female there is a level of difficulty to … try to decide if I even want to portray being a male or if I want to do a portrayal of a strong female,” Grothouse said.

Grothouse said she would like it if she is interpreted as a male dancer, but also doesn’t want to part with any of her personal feminine touches.

“I probably will lean more toward trying to be a strong female,” Grothouse said. “Then if someone wants to see me as a male character that’s fine. If someone wants to see me as a female Puss in Boots, that’s fine, too.”

Jenny Roberts can be reached at

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