After a three-year sabbatical following the pandemic, the Sisters Grimm theatre company is about to experience a full-circle moment after it returns to the West End stage with Inala.
Inala – A Zulu Ballet, PLP Architecture, and Cambridge focusing on material science, employing a unique bio material for an environmentally-friendly approach to theatre production
Audiences would leap to their feet every night with the final curtain of Inala. The thunder of applause would engulf the theatre when the Sisters Grimm’s cast took their bow. The Zulu ballet, which transported you to the varied landscapes of South Africa, featured music by the show’s composers the late Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Ella Spira MBE, and it attracted performers such as the Soweto Gospel Choir and dancers from the Royal Ballet and Rambert.
Mark Baldwin OBE, who choreographed the award-winning show says why Inala had such a wide appeal. “The stage is filled by a vision that is both ancient and utterly modern in its magic,” said Baldwin.
Sisters Grimm then took Inala on worldwide tour and expanded its global show portfolio, creating productions such as Voices of the Amazon, Bali Queen, Sakura and The Great Winter. The result being that the company was given a valuation of £137 million.
The culmination of 10 years of work was about to happen at Expo 2020 in the UAE, when Sisters Grimm was set to become the resident theatre company for the global exhibition. Each one of its touring shows would come together for the first time under one roof and the company would also launch a new show inspired by Arabia. The pavilions of Expo 2020 were going to become a riot of feather costumes, world-class choreography, and soulful voices. “The future looked really bright,” Spira said. They also had a contract to tour Japan and China with Inala and Voices of the Amazon. But then in March 2020, the world ground to a halt and theatres closed their doors.
Inala – A Zulu Ballet trailer
Sisters Grimm’s bookings disappeared, and further plans were put on ice. Luckily, as the shows were yet to go into production, Sister’s Grimm’s co-founders Ella Spira and Pietra Mello-Pittman MBE didn’t have to furlough anyone, and they could maintain a skeleton staff. Yet, Sisters Grimm’s attempt to remain engaged in the arts community until theatres reopened, would not only take the founders across the globe to work with artists, musicians, singers, and photographers, but ready to take Inala to the next level.
Spira decided to continue creating what would have been the soundtrack for the Arab-inspired show with Arab musicians DB Gad and Madyan Hamza. They released five tracks, one of which, “Windows of the Mind” received 3.5 million views on YouTube. Instead of waiting until they could release the tracks with a stage performance, they showcased them in a film shot at Dubai Opera and with oil paintings that Spira had painted of the emirates during lockdown.
This became the blueprint of Global Landscapes, a travelling exhibition that brought Spira and former Royal Ballet dancer Mello-Pittman together with artists from different genres in other countries. They couldn’t take their shows there at the time, but they could reconnect with the people. They retraced the routes they had previously taken with Inala and worked with local artists in each country, staying true to Sisters Grimm’s mission to bring people together from different worlds.
After a year of lockdown, Spira and Mello-Pittman wanted to celebrate collaboration, nature and sustainability. In Singapore they took to the waters of the Singapore Strait with local photographer Rebecca Toh to create a multi-media exhibition that showed how the metropolis protects its vital resources. In South Africa, after visiting the home where Spira worked with Joseph Shabalala, they travelled to the country’s first wildlife reserve so she could capture this special place on canvas. The exhibition also touched down in Indonesia, Japan, Brazil and the UK. Then in March, in New York City, Spira joined with young musicians Julia Miranda and John Clarke Jr to co-write a work for the Global Landscapes Retrospective exhibition at Carnegie Hall.
Now after travelling for two years, Sisters Grimm is ready to put down roots in the West End. The show that Mark Monahan, the Arts Editor for the Daily Telegraph called, “A heart-warming antidote to pretty much everything” is set to have a permanent base in London’s theatre district.
“I think what’s happening now is that people are really appreciating those moments of having shared experiences,” said Spira. And if there were any doubts, the stats are proving them right as the West End has seen box office revenues rise 11 per cent from pre-pandemic times.1
But unsurprisingly, the women who brought a theatrical take to art exhibitions, want to make their original stage show bigger and better. To give more opportunities to South African artists they will be creating a choir just for Inala. The costumes will no longer be restricted by the need to pack them in shipping containers, so they can become more structural and push boundaries. And the front of house will also become part of Inala with the continuation of the Global Landscapes exhibition and a collaboration between Spira and a soon to be announced South African artist. “With the new base we can create a more immersive world,” said Spira.
The world of theatre is looking forward to their return. Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, who is the Executive Director of ASU Gammage and Vice Chair of the Broadway League said that Spira and Mello-Pittman are the present and future stars of international producing and presenting. “Their scope and insight on the beauty and universality reveals itself on the stage and through every performer,” said Jennings-Roggensack. “The audience is transfixed, transcended, and transported to a thrilling new place and time.”
The new permanent home said Mello-Pittman will also give Sisters Grimm the chance to expand its social impact work. Sisters Grimm, who previously partnered with The Prince’s Trust to add enrichment to the charity’s outreach programmes, gives youths in the UK the chance to find out more about the careers in the theatre and join Sisters Grimm’s Youth Advisory Board. “Now 30,000 young people are going to see the show for free annually,” said Mello-Pittman.
The show’s new permanent home marks a new beginning. “Inala was really relevant when the idea was born and that relevancy has continued,” Spira said. “We see Inala being relevant in 10 years, 50 years, 100 years’ time…”
Article written by Claire Turrell
Pietra Mello-Pittman MBE & Ella Spira MBE, Co-Founders Sisters Grimm and Inala West End Ltd
1source: Simon Raven, “Industry News: West End Box Office Data for 2022 Released,” published on February 14, 2023