OBT staff members Linda Besant and Claire Willett sat down with Principal Dancer Anne Mueller (who retires from the stage and transitions to our artistic staff in May) to interview her about her life and career. Over the next few days we’ll be sharing with you some of her stories and anecdotes – from her childhood as a touring ballet dancer, to the craziest photo shoot she ever worked on, to how she ended up living on a farm full of goats. Stay tuned for this behind-the-scenes peek at the life of one of OBT’s most engaging, colorful and unique personalities.

by Claire Willett

Anne Mueller and John Michael Schert for Trey McIntyre Project. Photo by Jonas Lundqvist.
Anne Mueller and John Michael Schert for Trey McIntyre Project. Photo by Jonas Lundqvist.

Photo shoots are part of the package when you’re a professional ballet dancer; compelling, arresting images that show off the grace and physicality of the company’s dancers are part of every marketing staff’s standard bag of tricks. Anne Mueller has done her fair share of photo shoots for OBT, but the craziest shoot of her life actually happened in summer of 2004 with the as-yet-barely-in-existence Trey McIntyre Project.

“Trey had been a good friend of mine for a very long time,” says Anne. At the time, he was working as a freelance choreographer making work on many different companies, but “He was craving an opportunity to work with a consistent group of dancers of his choosing,” she explains, “while also not yet wanting to take on the directorship of a full-time company.” It began with a series of phone conversations Anne had with Trey and his partner John Michael Schert; Anne and John Michael had never met in person before they all decided collectively to join forces and collaborate on this process. “We decided to go for it,” Anne says, “so the first question was, ‘Where do we start?’” The answer? A photo shoot. “We came to the conclusion that the first thing we really needed were images,” she says. “If we’re going to sell people on a company that doesn’t exist, we need some good, striking images to give them some sort of idea what this whole thing’s going to be about.” After a not-so-successful initial attempt, Anne flew out to New York on a red-eye for a second attempt at the critical photo shoot (“I think I was there for maybe 48 hours, tops”) as well as discussions about how to create a fundraising strategic plan and marketing materials.

Jonas Lundqvist, a Finnish photographer who had danced with Pennsylvania Ballet, had flown out from Finland to New York to do the shoot, but the location and concept remained elusive. There was a lot at stake – the images had to capture and define the aesthetic of a company that didn’t technically exist yet, and inspire presenters to take a chance on them. They did some trial shots on rooftops and on the streets of New York City, trying to get passersby to react; “but nobody there reacts,” says Anne, “so that wasn’t very fun.” Somehow – she can’t remember how it was decided or who thought of it – they settled on doing the shoot at the beach. So they drove an hour from Brooklyn to Queens to do the shoot at Rockaway Beach.

The costume element for the shoot hadn’t been finalized beforehand; Anne kept asking Trey what to wear and he kept telling her he wanted them both in what she describes as “people clothes.” But Anne, convinced that when push came to shove Trey would change his mind, was prepared. “I did bring some people clothes, but I kept thinking, ‘He’s probably going to want more body than that.’ So I just made sure that I had on a good pair of black underwear.” On the beach, under the hot August sun, Anne stripped down to her black camisole and underwear to get a little sun; when Trey saw her he said, “Oh, actually that outfit’s really good.” (MORAL OF THE STORY: Always wear good underwear to photo shoots, just in case. I’m pretty sure I’ve actually seen that on America’s Next Top Model.)

The actual shooting began around three in the afternoon, and at first it was stressful and nerve-wracking. Anne and John Michael had never met prior to the trip, “but suddenly he and I were thrust into what’s actually a very personal and vulnerable situation –improvisational dancing with somebody for a camera at close range under high pressure.” Initially Jonas shot them both individually and as a pair, and Anne says “we were both just kind of stumbling through.” They shot for about five hours under intense strain, and then the sun started to set, creating additional pressure to get it right before the light was gone. Towards the end, she says, “I think John Michael and I had worked ourselves to a place of frustration to where we were ready to just abandon ourselves, which I think really shows in these images – we’re just absolutely throwing it all out there.”

Trey came up with the idea to make the most out of the great sunset light and take advantage of the little time they had left, and told Anne and John-Michael, “Okay, you start on this side, and you start on this side, and run towards each other, and when you’re in front of the camera, do something.” “We didn’t plan what we were going to do,” Anne says, “we just ran.” They did this rapid-fire for a long, long time, says Anne – it was “Run! Do something! Run! Do something!” over and over. “I’m very proud of these pictures because they’re just crazy,” Anne says. “There’s nothing being held back by either one of us. But we also have really contrasting qualities: he’s a very long, elegant and lyrical dancer, and I’m more power-oriented and kind of snappy.” Anne’s favorite shot of John Michael was one where “he threw himself into a fetal position perfectly sideways to the ground and then just collapsed on the sand. Unfortunately they asked him to do it again, which I think he regretted because it hurt! But that was kind of a wonderful thing about the sand – we could hit the ground in a way that you really can’t on a normal type of surface, so we were able to do things we wouldn’t have been able to do elsewhere.” Her favorite shot of herself? “There’s one where I’m jumping up and my legs are basically just in fifth, a little bit of a pike, and I had sand in my hands, and I threw it right as I jumped, and the sand makes this gorgeous X pattern in the sky in front of me. It felt like being a ninja or something!”

Anne Mueller for Trey McIntyre Project. Photo by Jonas Lundqvist.

The shoot went on for a long, long time, she says, “and we captured a lot of really powerful images.” You’d never know from looking at the photos now that “it was one of the most gross and grueling experiences of my dance career. . . we had sand in every possible place sand could be, you know,” she laughs, “and then we had to sit in a car, sweaty and sandy and disgusting, to drive an hour back to Brooklyn.” But it was worth it. The shoot inspired the concept for the next few TMP seasons as well; the following year Trey shot the dancers himself in the water, and then the following year the concept was Air.

Anne remains incredibly proud of that first shoot on the beach. “I really love those pictures,” she says. “I feel like the power of those images did what it needed to do to give that company a start. They had to be powerful enough to make presenters want to take a chance on something that didn’t exist. That’s got to be something pretty tangible. Trey’s reputation obviously speaks for itself, but really to sell somebody on something in a visual art form, you’ve got to have something visual. And I think that branding-wise, that really set the tone for what that company was going to be like and how it was going to speak its message to the community.”

Are you an Anne fan? What do you think is Anne’s most recognizable, iconic role? Post your thoughts below in the comments!

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