First, it was Joni Mitchell. Next, Sir Elton John. Then Sarah McLachlan. And now, for the fourth of its productions based on the music of contemporary singers, Alberta Ballet has collaborated with one of our province’s home-grown mega-talents, k.d. lang.
Balletlujah! premières in Edmonton on May 3, and is based on music from lang’s 30-year career, including iconic songs like Turn Me Round, Constant Craving, and (of course) Hallelujah. The ballet tells the fairy-tale like story of a woman’s life and passionate love affairs (played on alternate nights by Nicole Caron and Hayna Gutierrez) against the backdrop of the small towns and limitless horizons of the Canadian prairies. And just as much as the dance and the music, the landscape is an integral part of this production.
“I’ve been in the prairies 10 years now, so I feel I can I finally set a ballet here, [and] try to capture the light and the energy of the people in the prairies,” says Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maître, who choreographed Balletlujah!
The question becomes, then, how to evoke the prairies in a performance bounded by time and the edges of the stage?
It helps that Grand-Maître has a crack team of designers working with him, including set design by Guillaume Lord, costume design by Anne Séguin-Poirier (both of whom have worked extensively with Cirque du Soleil) and video design by Adam Larsen. Advanced projections, with material sourced from Alberta, including k.d. lang’s hometown of Consort, will bring a bit of the prairies, foothills and distant mountains into the theatre; and Séguin-Poirier has printed images of the prairies directly onto her costumes.
“The feeling you get in the prairie, you can never really re-create on stage,” admits Grand-Maître, “but if you take an intimate part of it and put it onstage in a real, truthful way then you feel like you’re there.”
As for the choreography, naturally this won’t be as traditional as a Tchaikovsky ballet. “For the dancers it’s a completely different approach than doing a ballet en pointe because they’re close to the earth,” says Grand-Maître. “It’s so windy here, they have to be grounded, and they have to open their chests. It was all about the wind and the freedom of movement and the joy of living in such a peaceful place.”
Add lang’s sublime, soaring voice to the mix, and you’re sure to get goose bumps.
Alberta Ballet has been on its pop ballet odyssey since 2007, when it collaborated with Joni Mitchell for The Fiddle and the Drum. A new collaboration with Mitchell is on the schedule for the 2013-14 season, premièring a year from now. Part of the motivation behind these ambitious productions is to introduce ballet to a new audience.
“From what I’ve been seeing from all of these adventurous little portraits, new audiences are coming from all ages and demographics,” says Grand-Maître. “It’s been amazing to see that almost every performance gets standing ovations, and people come back to see it, and then they come back to see other dance.”
But another part of it is simply to pay artistic tribute to these vocal giants. “It’s when they [the singers] see that we captured... something that’s so important to their art and their life, and if they think we did it well, then I know the audience will enjoy it,” says Grand-Maître.
“We all go to the theatre to remember what make us human — there’s so much that makes us inhuman now. And that little truth is what we’re after — when the curtain comes down, that we all felt that we got a bit closer to [k.d.’s] music and what she thinks is important in life. That, I think, is the most important thing.”