Pietra Mello-Pittman and Ella Spira met in 2009 through a mutual friend. Mello-Pittman was a dancer with the Royal Ballet who had begun creating her own productions; Spira, a composer who started out writing production music at the BBC. Smart and ambitious, they bonded over their interest in collaborating with arts beyond their own particular worlds.
They created a theatre company that broke all the rules and Sisters Grimm was born. Founded to produce shows that celebrate different cultures and are accessible whilst produced to the highest artistic standards, Sisters Grimm shows would offer a unique and vibrant immersive experience, powered by an explosive fusion of live music, song, and dance.
Fast forward 13 years and they agree they are finally settled and solid, having just been rewarded with MBEs for their contribution to International Trade and the Creative Industries. INALA the South African dance musical, created with Ladysmith Black Mambazo is probably the best known of their productions, having been nominated for a Grammy Award and played both internationally and at home at the Royal Variety Performance, the Royal Albert Hall and in London’s West End.
Their work dynamic is close and supportive and they attribute much of the success of their partnership to their very distinct perspectives. Their complementary strengths have shaped their work marriage and they are now comfortable in their differences.
Along the way, they have learnt that diversity within a team creates greater knowledge and makes a team stronger. “We challenge each other all the time”, muses Pietra. “Ella is focussed on the bigger picture, whilst I tend to deal with the day-to-day details and operations. When you are aware of the other’s strengths, it gives you the opportunity to offer 100% support. I don’t think we’ve ever even considered the notion that there is something we can’t do”.
Both agree that there is a marked line between circumspection and actual friction. “We’re not afraid of challenging each other or challenging something if we have opposing views, but it has to be done in a productive way. We usually meet in the middle somewhere or help each other to see it from a slightly different perspective to find the best solution.”
Ella believes that working out your skill set is time well spent and goes as far to suggest that you seek support if you need help. “A partnership works best when there are clearly identifiable roles. One of the best things we did from a business growth and general wellbeing perspective was to find a leadership consultant who has become an important part of our support network. He has really helped us to keep on track and make sense of what we need to do next”.
Pietra adds, “We started working with him after eight years of Sisters Grimm. It was a particularly difficult time and we were both frustrated that the other was not being held accountable for our responsibilities. We took a Myer-Briggs test, to help us to understand our personality types and how they affected our working practices. At the same time our leadership consultant encouraged us to be honest with ourselves and each other and to appreciate and celebrate our strengths”. It led to a deeper mutual understanding.
Pietra says, “Ella is an extrovert and much better at networking, whilst I’m happier in the background planning”. Ella adds, “Focussing on the broader brushstrokes means that I sometime miss things but Pietra always catches them. But with each difference comes an overarching similarity. For instance, whilst Pietra is better at thinking through a logistical problem and coming up with answers, we are both 100% pragmatists and we will always look to solve an issue rather than ignoring it and hoping it will go away. And this is where we succeed”.
The pair have encountered many frustrations on their business journey. Whilst there is certainly a business model to be applied in the arts industry, it’s by no means standard, especially if you take into consideration the added social value of the kind of work Sisters Grimm present. Says Ella, “Raising the funds to put on our shows has been one of the hardest things. There’s no comparable genre to what we have created so we don’t fit neatly into any box”.
Was learning about business models a challenge for the two creatives? Ella explains “That’s my domain. Finding the right business model is a creative process in itself, especially if the business is not a transactional one. I get a lot of satisfaction from researching and finding the right model or financing structure for each project. Pietra is fantastic at the planning which makes it possible for us to maximise on our opportunities”.
Pietra confirms, “One of our toughest journeys was the launch of INALA, produced over a period of five years. We had to raise every penny of it ourselves and there were times when the elements were not falling into place. I got quite demoralised, but Ella pulled me up because, for her, failure was not an option”.
Ella’s optimistic nature is one of the many positive traits that make this partnership a success. But on the flipside, the composer recognises that her temper needs a foil. “We’ve had to face a fair amount in 12 years of the business and some of that has been pure misogyny. I still react pretty badly to overt sexism but Pietra is extremely diplomatic and the performer in her allows her to deal with it in a very professional way”.
As well as coming from different artistic disciplines the pair had very different upbringings which they credit with strengthening their work unit. Ella is oldest of six and grew up in Gloucester City Centre. Pietra is an only child and grew up with her mother in Surrey, attending a private school.
Ella says “I was always amongst diversity – culturally, ethnically, economically. That has definitely informed the things that we have done and given me a purpose that I only fully recognised when Pietra and I started working together. Pietra explains, “I was raised by my mother, who worked extremely hard to support me in my ambitions to dance. I attended an all-girls’ school where we were taught to value ourselves as women and given opportunities to take the lead and achieve”.
Whilst their personalities might differ, their politics and values are very similar. Pietra says, “It would be incredibly difficult to work together if our values were not aligned. Social Impact has always been at our core, creating experiences that bring people together, build bridges and create memories. We bring in some of the most diverse audiences some of our global venues have ever seen. That is a rewarding factor that makes everything worthwhile at the end of the day, the social impact more than the numbers”.
One thing that the partners certainly can agree on is what food to order on a night out. “We are huge fans of Japanese food, although now Ella is a vegetarian, chicken is off the menu”. And what would they wear? Pietra smiles. “I’d be in trainers”. Ella nods and adds, “And I’d be in heels”.