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(This is a brief excerpt from Anne’s performance as “Fred the Duck” in the Charles Moulton piece “Chickens,” which premiered in 2001 at Oregon Ballet Theatre).
Petite and angular, with a striking face and a fascinatingly geometric body, Anne Mueller is a distinctive-looking woman even in her regular-person clothes. As an OBT Principal Dancer, it’s not unusual for her to be recognized on the street or in the grocery store by a ballet fan. But we got the scoop on the very first role at OBT that ever got Anne recognized in public . . . and it’s even crazier than you can imagine.
In 2001, OBT produced a “Battle of the Sexes” Choreographer’s Showcase featuring one program using all male choreographers and one using all female choreographers. Anne had previously danced in a piece by Charlie Moulton, called “Five,” which Anne says she regrets was only done once. “It was beautiful. Very aerobic,” she says. “Charlie’s style of choreographing was really unlike anything I’d experienced before . . . That was a huge growth experience for me.” She loved it so much that she jumped at the chance to perform in his next piece as part of the “Battle of the Sexes” at OBT two years later – without any idea what she was in for.
The piece, entitled “Chickens,” was originally created on White Oak Dance Project, who premiered it at the Joyce Theatre in New York. “They were for the most part not ballet dancers,” says Anne. “They were mostly modern dancers, so both thematically and vocabulary-wise, this piece was pretty out there.” The woman who traveled out to Portland to set the piece on OBT’s company informed Anne, “You’ve been precast as the duck.” “And I thought, ‘Oh, I’m the duck! That sounds like an important part,’” she laughs. “I was very excited to be the duck.”
Then the dancers watched a video of the piece, and, says Anne, “We just didn’t even know what to think.” But it grew on them quickly. “Though we’d been kind of terrified when we first initially saw the video, once we got into the world of this piece, we all just absolutely loved dancing it so much. It was a thrill to dance,” she says. “It was just a really fantastically challenging and off-the-wall piece.”
“Off-the-wall” seems to just about cover it. There’s no music – the ballet is set to a spoken-word piece by John Cale of the Velvet Underground, based on the story of the movie The Badlands. “The speaker talks about that movie and has a real affinity for Sissy Spacek, so that’s where some of the themes from the piece come from,” says Anne. “So Sissy was the male lead; he was a cowboy, but he wasn’t much of a cowboy. And his companion was me, Fred the Duck. And the deal with Fred the Duck was that he – he, she, I don’t even know – was a confused duck. I thought I was a chicken. I didn’t get that I was a duck so I tried to do lots of chicken things. I wouldn’t get in the water because the chickens wouldn’t get in the water.”
Anne wasn’t the only dancer who had to stretch outside her comfort zone to inhabit her zany role: dancer Matthew Boyes faced an entirely different challenge. “He had to hula-hoop in this piece at the very beginning,” says Anne, “and he had never learned to hula-hoop. So when we started learning this piece – which was like two weeks before the show so we were under some serious time pressure – he took the hula-hoop home and had to learn basically overnight. He came in the next day and he could barely walk, he was so sore.”
The show was wildly successful and audiences loved it. And because of Anne’s hard work in this wacky role, “People started to recognize me on the street,” she says. “They would say, ‘Hey, you’re Fred the Duck!’ Which was exciting – I had not really been recognized at all prior to dancing that role, and I thought it was just so fantastically ironic as a classically-trained ballet dancer that the role I was being recognized for was the role of Fred the Duck.”
Are you an Anne fan? What do you think is Anne’s most recognizable, iconic role? Post your thoughts below in the comments!