Myth Steps

Trenton Doyle Hancock's curious creatures rise from the canvas, with help from Stephen Mills and Graham Reynolds

(L-r) Graham Reynolds, Stephen Mills, and Trenton Doyle Hancock
(L-r) Graham Reynolds, Stephen Mills, and Trenton Doyle Hancock

The Vegans are dancing!

Not just any vegans, mind you. These are the capital-"V" Vegans who inhabit the artwork of Trenton Doyle Hancock – the bony, white mutants with oddly shaped heads and bulging, bloodshot eyes who have been at the heart of a sprawling, mythic tale recounted in dozens of drawings, paintings, and sculptures over the past decade. In all the time that this East Texas native has been building their narrative, they have existed only in stillness and silence.

But for the first two weeks of April, the Vegans – Sesom, Paul, Bow-Headed Lou, Baby Curt, Shy Jerry, Anthony, TB, F-Shine, and Betto Watchow – along with other key elements in Hancock's surreal saga – the Mounds, the Darkness Babies, and the goddess Painter – will rise off the painter's canvases to become moving, breathing characters in a new ballet.

This original dance is the brainchild of Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills, who approached Hancock about bringing his work to the stage and engaged compositional wunderkind Graham Reynolds to provide its score and sounds. Together, the three set out to translate the dense, fantastic chronicle of the black-and-white Vegans, their discovery of color through the priest Sesom, and the fateful repercussions of that act from still life in two dimensions to motion and sound in three.

The result, Cult of Color: Call to Color, premiering this week, is the culmination of a three-year collaboration. Much of the work of that time is documented in the Arthouse exhibition "Cult of Color: Call to Color: Notes on a Collaboration," showing through April 27 at the Jones Center for Contemporary Art, 700 Congress. But the three principals also discussed the project in a program at the Arthouse headquarters on Saturday, March 22. Excerpts from the talk, moderated by this writer, follow.

Austin Chronicle: Trenton, you first started drawing this epic of good and evil as a kid. What were some of the influences on it?

Trenton Doyle Hancock: The first character that I came up with was Torpedoboy, and that was around the fourth grade. I was looking at a lot of comic books – Spider-Man, Superman. That stuff was really important to me, as it is to most little boys at that age. For me, it was a way to escape, not being very sports-oriented.

AC: At what point did the mythology start?

Hancock: The idea of building characters that I could call my own, masses of them that related to each other, started in high school, because at that point, I started to think about my future, and what am I gonna do when school is over? And I thought I'd draw comic books. I didn't think anything about painting the mythology, but then someone said, "Why don't you try it?"

AC: Stephen, Arthouse Executive Director Sue Graze calls you the catalyst for this collaboration. Do you have an interest in contemporary art?

Stephen Mills: From the time I was young, I was interested in art. I became interested in contemporary art after having become friends with Sue and visited this huge art community here in Austin, which wasn't so large way back when. I've been here 20 years, and I've seen the art community grow tremendously over that period of time. I became aware of Trent's work from a show in 1998, so I've known about him for quite a long time.

Left: Sesom costume designed by Trenton Doyle Hancock, drawn by Susan Branch;
right: prototype costume
Left: Sesom costume designed by Trenton Doyle Hancock, drawn by Susan Branch; right: prototype costume

AC: What in his work spoke to you?

Mills: With Trent's work, it was impossible to just walk by and say, "Oh, that's a painting." You had to stop, and you had to look at it, and you had to get into it, and you had to question it. It's not often that a person who's not a visual artist spends 30 minutes with a painting, and that's what I found myself doing. I knew that there were more layers to the work than what I was seeing, and I wanted to know more. That's what makes art good.

AC: When you began to consider the idea of a collaboration between dance and visual art, was Trenton's work one of the first you thought of?

Mills: Actually, it was the only one I thought of. There's a history of choreographers having artists create costumes and backdrops and things like that, but I wasn't interested in doing that. I really wanted to be able to make a dance that embodied what it was the visual artist was talking about. And that was going to require something with narrative. And the complexity of the narrative in Trent's work was what drew me to it. I came [to Arthouse] to talk to Sue about artists, but I really only wanted to talk to her about Trent, and when she brought it up, the conversation stopped. It wasn't much of a dialogue. "Can you call him ... now?"

AC: Trenton, what was your reaction when you heard there was this guy who wants to make a ballet out of your paintings?

Hancock: I thought, "Cool." I had no idea what that meant or how much interaction I would actually have, but I knew I had tons of material that could be translated.

Sue Graze: You might not remember, but you said, "I've been waiting for something like this."

Hancock: At the time, I had been thinking about how I could move my paintings from a gallery space on to something else. I was looking for a new format. I had just embarked on a book project that was going to be pretty large, but I was looking for other landscapes.

AC: Had you considered animation as a way to get this mythology in motion?

Hancock: Early on, I'd been influenced greatly by animation and paid attention to animation. Part of my mission statement as a painter was to figure out a way that I could separate what I do from moving pictures. How do you take a static medium and fuse it with movement? I was very careful not to have my paintings look like cartoon cels. There had to be more to it than that. I put the idea of animating my work on the back burner for a long time. It's only been in the three years that I've been working with Stephen and Graham and seen how the ballet was put together that I'm beginning to think, "Now it's time." Recently, I've met some interesting young animators, and I'm going to get them to teach me everything they know.

AC: Stephen, is it fair to say that you perceived motion in Trent's work? Did it seem difficult to take those works of art and translate them into your medium?

Mills: Truthfully, it didn't seem as though it was going to be a challenge at all. And then it proved to be a huge challenge. In the paintings, there's so much movement. Each one has a story, and some of those stories are epic. But once we decided what the story was going to be and who the characters were, I started to investigate how these characters might stand, how do they walk, how do they interact with each other, what sort of communications do they have between one another? Do they have their own special language, and what is that? And what I found was that the work is based on this one particular character, Sesom, and his disciples. And they're Vegans, so they're white, and they're a little bony ... [laughter from the audience]. His words, not mine. Anyway, as I went to the paintings to gather that information, I found that usually there were not drawings of complete Vegans. There would be a hand or a foot or a back or a face but never one completed one. So I could never come to any conclusion about those questions. Which was frustrating but also liberating, in the sense that since there isn't a background for it, I can decide for myself how they might do that.

60-foot-by-17-foot backdrop for <i>Cult of Color: Call to Color</i>, fabricated by the Fabric Workshop and Museum
60-foot-by-17-foot backdrop for Cult of Color: Call to Color, fabricated by the Fabric Workshop and Museum

AC: You're talking about a mythology that's been developed over 10 years. How do you condense all that into a ballet the length of an hour?

Mills: Normally what happens in my process of making a narrative work is I decide what the scenario is, I decide what to keep and what to get rid of, and I decide how linear the story is going to be. In painting, it doesn't have to be linear. Trent could work on this story for a while, drop it, move on, and pick up the story from the middle, if he wants, and work backward. But it can't happen that way in dance. You don't have words. You can't stop and say, "What he's saying here is ... ." It has to make sense gesturally. So I was really dazed and confused and didn't know what I was going to do. I went back to Trent and said, "What part do you want to tell?" So really Trent decided what it was going to be. And after deciding that, we brought in a dramaturge, John Lee, whose job was to make a theatrical, linear story out of [the material], which he did very successfully, dividing it into two acts and 11 scenes. And that's when Graham became involved.

Graham Reynolds: As we've been talking about, Trenton's world is an ongoing one, and he's been working on it for however long and will continue working on it, but our piece is going to start and end, and you can't assume that the audience is aware of the previous existence of these characters and is going to be around for the next chapter. So it's got to function as a chapter for Trenton but a whole story for us. That was the trick when we worked out Trenton's first scenario. It was so open that it felt episodic, and I think that was part of the going back and forth, part of the collaborative process. Part of what John helped us do was make it serve as a complete work on its own, outside of the context of seeing Trenton's other work, but also not close the book on the story, so its world would continue in Trenton's work after the ballet.

Hancock: I was very pleased. It definitely feels like my universe. There wasn't a lot of compromise, just a few things changed here and there to make it feel like it's at the end but still have the feeling that it could go on, too.

Reynolds: It was tricky messing with this world that had existed for so long, intruding in it and adapting certain things. Trenton was generous with letting us change details of the mythology here and there.

Hancock: There was only one moment where I felt, "Okay, this is feeling too Disney-esque." I said, "Nope. Can't go there. Too happy."

AC: Graham and Stephen are both used to collaboration, as that's the nature of the performing arts, whereas we think of the visual artist as working alone. Did you have much experience with collaboration before this?

Hancock: Not in terms of my professional art career. Definitely working on book projects, that's a collaborative process. Growing up singing in choirs and playing drums in incarnations of bands, I understood what it meant to compromise and collaborate. But the painter goes into the studio alone and comes out alone.

Mills: It's true that when I go into work, I have to be collaborative with the 20 people standing in front of me, or work would not get done. But as our process went on, the success of it came from the fact that we were all so intrigued with each other's worlds. I studied musical composition, but I'm not a composer, and I so enjoyed going to Graham's house and listening to the music and his ideas about layering the sound design on top of the music. It's really a brilliant score. And I'm not a visual artist either, but it's really cool to go to Trent's studio and watch his work in progress. I think we had that mutual respect for each other, and that's what is needed for any collaboration.

AC: Did any of you feel like you were out of your comfort zone, and how did you deal with that?

Reynolds: Actually, I felt more comfortable in this collaboration than I've felt in almost any other. Dance is a little easier than theatre or film, in that there's no dialogue, so there's no competition in the sound environment. So we're able to collaborate, but at the same time, our territories are so clearly defined. In theatre or film, as soon as those territories start overlapping, one starts pulling against the other.

Hancock: Since I was in charge of a lot of the visual content for the piece, I was on the phone with maybe three or four different institutions all the time and having to travel to different cities and work with crews of people that were in charge of putting these props together. It was sort of weird and daunting having to manage all of that. I had lots of help, but it was paramount for me to be on the spot, dictating what color goes here and what goes there, working with literally hundreds of people to get all this stuff done. So that was different from being alone in the studio. But I think it was a real good thing for me to learn, how to manage projects.

Untitled preparatory sketch for <i>Cult of Color: Call to Color</i> by Trenton Doyle Hancock
Untitled preparatory sketch for Cult of Color: Call to Color by Trenton Doyle Hancock

Mills: In my work, I don't have to ask Tchaikovsky's permission for anything, you know what I mean? I don't have to ask Stravinsky's permission. But working with an artist who's [living], it was like I was co-opting the intellectual property of another artist, and that's a very tricky situation and one that has to be dealt with very sensitively. And Trent has been fantastic about it, but that was my challenge. How would Trent want these characters portrayed? This is his world. How would he want it portrayed, and what is the best way for me to go about doing that in a way that is respectful to the body of work but also raises it to the level of being a theatrical experience?

AC: What are some of the challenges you faced in this project, and how did you overcome them?

Reynolds: One of the first challenges was the playful nature of the characters and the colors, and how playful and brightly colored to make the music. I chose not to go down the bright, playful road so much. They may be bright and playful, but they're substantive characters with a lot of dark qualities. I wanted it to feel like a fully realized world, so I took the characters very seriously with the music. So the battle scenes sound like people are getting hurt and not like a cartoon battle.

Hancock: For me, it was learning my place in the meetings. I supplied the story; I have the visual information from the paintings. But not knowing how Stephen worked, not knowing what it takes to put the music together, I didn't know how hands-on I should be. So things were abstract to me for a little while, and I felt like I was there to say yes and no and answer these guys' questions.

Reynolds: When these guys came in every few weeks to listen to what I'd come up with, it was the opposite of most film and theatre experiences, as far as getting notes. With film and theatre, you get seven people in the room, and one's a producer and one's a director and one's this person, and this person says, "I think it should be faster," and this person says, "I think it should be slower," and this person says, "I think it should be a little funnier," and this person says, "It needs a little weight to the scene," and they send you home, and you're supposed to make it faster, slower, funnier, and heavier at the same time. And these guys were all, "That sounds cool."

Hancock: Yeah, I would come over and go, "That's awesome." And then I'd leave.

Mills: My assistant would set up two-hour meetings for me with Graham, and I would go and after the first 15 minutes, "That's great," and we're gone. And then I'd have an hour and 45 minutes off. It was fantastic.

AC: Surely there were moments when you worried about being able to pull it together. But was there a moment for each of you that made you feel like, "Oh, it is going to come together"?

Reynolds: Mine was early. As far as multimedia collaborations go, I really enjoy dance, so [when someone called me from the ballet to set up a meeting with Stephen], I was going to say yes no matter what, but I hoped that it would at least be something I would be excited about. I didn't know what Stephen was going to suggest, and I wasn't familiar with Trenton's work at that point. So that was the moment of: Is this going to work? Then he pulled out Trenton's book of art, and I was, "This is going to work." I was pretty much fine from there.

Mills: I had two. The first was when I heard Graham's first theme, the opening of the ballet. When you're making something new with someone you don't know, you're throwing it out there and hoping for the best. I had always wanted to work with Graham and never had the opportunity. Because of the epic nature of this, I just felt like he was the right composer. And when I heard that section, I felt that he was exactly the right choice, that Graham understood the nature of what this work was going to be. It was sinister, it was dramatic, it was hopeful, it was funny, and it was sinister. Graham got it, and I was so pleased.

The other one was the day I saw all nine costumes for the Vegans standing in the costume shop together. It was a laugh riot, and I just knew that these characters were going to be right and the audience was going to have a positive reaction to it.

Hancock: For me, it was coming over to Graham's that first time and actually getting to talk with you in your environment about the different terminology and the correlation between what you do and what the visual arts do, making sketches and laying down the foundation and building. And then actually hearing what you came up with, getting each character right, getting the theme right, having sounds embody their essence, I knew we were all on the same page.

I always trusted Stephen and his vision after seeing his piece Light, so I've been excited about the project throughout, and each time something new was revealed to me, like pictures of the costumes or the final versions of the set-pieces, I'd get excited again. But I got the most excited when I got to come to a rehearsal and see how you interact with your dancers. It became very clear to me what you do and how you create. Being able to see the dancers become an extension of you was an amazing thing. Seeing what you had come up with for the movements for the characters, it crystallized for me that this thing is far beyond what any one of us could do alone.  

Cult of Color: Call to Color runs April 3-13, Thursday-Sunday (times vary), in the AustinVentures StudioTheater of Ballet Austin's Butler Dance Education Center, 501 W. Third. For more information, call 476-2163 or visit

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Cult of Color: Call to Color, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Stephen Mills, Graham Reynolds, Ballet Austin, Arthouse

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