David Sawer's 'Rumpelstiltskin' on film

13th December 2021

Features NMC Recordings

This Christmas, the acclaimed contemporary dance company BalletBoyz is to present their third film, featuring music composed by David Sawer. The film is a playful reimagining of the age-old Brothers Grimm tale Rumpelstilzchen, and reworks the suite of music NMC released as part of David's 2019 album of the same name. The actors communicate the story through movement and gestural narration, with a score performed by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. In the composer's words it is “a grotesque fable for our times”, and he leaves it up to the audience to ponder the modern-day resonances of this dark tale of greed, deceit, cruelty and abuse. The film will be available in cinemas nationwide from 21 December, and on SkyArts from 23 December. Watch the trailer below.

Stephen Newbould commissioned David Sawer’s Rumpelstiltskin when he was Artistic Director at BCMG. In the article below, originally featured in our Friends' Newsletter, he recalls how it all started and the artistic process that gave life to the piece.

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David Sawer’s Rumpelstiltskin is one of the pieces I’m most proud to have helped into the world during my time at BCMG. This is mainly of course because it’s such a wonderful work, from a composer whose music fizzes with vitality, but also as was clear that David really needed to write it. David was one of the first composers I asked for a new commission on becoming Artistic Director of BCMG in 2001. His marvellous string ensemble piece, The Memory of Water  (also available on NMC) had been premiered by the ensemble in 1993, and we now began talking about his next BCMG project. We discussed ensemble pieces, and a possible ballet, and I think it was when I didn’t baulk at the idea of a stage work that David revealed that, in fact, he had an existing idea – Rumpelstiltskin – which he would dearly love to make happen.

David’s plans for what the work might be were already well-developed. Indeed, the late lamented Docklands Sinfonietta had hoped to commission it, but they had then ceased operations. David had worked up a scenario with the brilliant director/designer duo of Richard Jones and Stewart Laing; the three of them had collaborated on David’s ENO opera From Morning ‘til Midnight and have since worked together frequently. They had an outline of a narrative structure, and some tantalising design images, reference points giving an idea of what the piece might look like on stage. I’m sure that a chunk of the music, if not already sketched, was there in David’s head. As we talked more it became clear that the performing forces needed, including six actor-dancers hand-picked by Richard Jones, were so bespoke that BCMG would have to build its own production unit to produce the work. This required a deep breath for our small company, as did our first sight of a fairly terrifying draft budget that the Docklands Sinfonietta had put together.

But by then we had been swept away by the force of David, Richard and Stewart’s desire to make the work, and the magic of their concept. So we said ‘yes’ and in doing so took on our largest single commission project to date. There then began two simultaneous journeys – an artistic one, where the project began thrillingly to take shape, and an organisational one as our Executive Producer Jackie Newbould (colleague and wife), assembled a production company, and we began to fundraise.

Needless to say, the latter journey involved trials and tribulations, but these were always offset, at the right moment, by the excitement of the former. We had inspiring meetings at David’s and Richard’s houses, looking at set models, discussing rehearsal schedules, and gently haggling over budget requirements. Throughout, Richard and Stewart, used to working with grand opera houses, were hearteningly sensitive to our comparatively tiny capacity, always helping us find practical ways to achieve what they needed.

We settled on 2009/10 for the premiere and tour of Rumpelstiltskin, and BCMG’s Board went out on a limb to give the go-ahead when we still had a fundraising mountain to climb. To complicate matters, we had to commit just at the time of the 2008 financial crash; at a critical moment, Arts Council England stepped in with funding designed for just such a situation, and this, together with BCMG’s stalwart Sound Investors who helped commission the score, got us over the line.

It was so exciting to witness the first production rehearsals, with Richard Jones and his actors reading through versions of the Rumpelstiltskin story together. There was to be no spoken or sung text, so they had to be inventive in overcoming key challenges like the narrative revelation of Rumpelstiltskin’s name. It was the most thrilling experience to watch Richard Jones direct rehearsals. He would build the performances up with his superb cast, constantly adding tiny touches and inflections to what they were creating; it was like watching a sculptor release a figure from a block of marble. David, unusually for a stage work, was there throughout, and he, Richard and Stewart had an almost telepathic understanding of what was needed.

It takes longer for actors to devise a new work than it does for musicians to rehearse the score, so for 2 or 3 weeks we just ‘glimpsed’ David’s music from a piano reduction used in rehearsals. I’ll then never forget the first notes coming to full life in instrumental rehearsals at the CBSO Centre; the music was coming hot off the printer into the rehearsal room, and I was enthralled by how the very first phrases we heard immediately evoked a stage.

Finally we were at the full company stage rehearsals, with the unflappable Martyn Brabbins conducting an on-stage BCMG band, alongside a huge open box which morphed from the Miller’s home to a spinning-shed (straw into gold!), to Rumpelstiltskin’s hideout, all atmospherically lit by the brilliant Mimi Jordan Sherin. Then, with days to go, disaster struck! The actor playing Rumpelstiltskin, crossing a Birmingham canal bridge in the rain, slipped and broke her leg. She was distraught and could not continue. The day was saved by Sarah Fahie, Richard Jones’ movement director and herself a brilliant performer, who stepped in and made the role instantly her own.

We premiered Rumpelstiltskin in Birmingham, took it to Huddersfield, Glasgow, and to London’s Spitalfields Festival, where the set just squeezed into Shoreditch Church. I had hoped to tour it wider, but the financial squeeze had made that impossible. That backdrop only served to heighten the relevance of this fable about greed and the abuse of power. The work was a huge hit, and I was so thrilled for David and the whole fantastic team who had made it come alive in such a magical way. I was delighted when David produced his Suite, and even more so when I heard that the NMC project had come to fruition.

NMC is a such great beacon in the musical landscape for all those who are curious about the new. A few weeks after I assumed the artistic role at BCMG, Colin Matthews met me and said ‘now your feet are under the desk, what shall we record?’. Many albums have followed over the years. There is a purity and focus to the way NMC operates which is exemplary, and a fleetness of foot in adapting to changing contexts.

More about 'Rumpelstilzchen'
David Sawer on NMC

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