Alberta Ballet has found a great formula in the pop tribute. Recently, they launched a new tribute ballet to k.d. lang, just as their Love Lies Bleeding (featuring music by Sir Elton John) finished its tour of Canada. The world première of Balletlujah! sold out to an enthusiastic audience and, after a proud introduction of the work, lang herself came on stage and was welcomed by an Albertan pre-show standing ovation. A daughter of the Alberta prairie, she was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in April.
If Love Lies Bleeding is a flashy homoerotic ballet musical, Balletlujah! is a warm, earthy and downright snuggly ballet set to sixteen songs recorded by lang. It’s a ballet about first love and this first love happens to be between two women.
The opening scene features the song Inglewood and a lead character named She (a.k.a. “The Ageless Child” performed by Hayna Gutierrez), who is dressed in stretch jeans and a sky-blue shirt over a tank-style T-shirt. Scenes of the prairie expand across the stage, watercolour textures layered with realistic and fantastical images. She luxuriates in wheat fields among grazing bison and a projection of a giant raven swoops in and establishes itself as her totem. As more dancers are introduced, cowboys and women pair up in varying combinations, individual dancers intermingling among the partners, creating an interesting spatial arrangement as different kinds of relationships form. It’s a departure from the typical ballet format of placing heterosexual pairings centre stage. The dancers are in bare feet most of the time, connecting them to the earth and establishing the ballet as a contemporary work. The costumes are simple, with particularly gorgeous dresses designed by Anne-Seguin Poirier that start with shades of golden wheat fields at the hem and blur into a clear blue Alberta sky at the bodice. In a barn dance scene that lasts three songs, She and the corps have a chance to show off their chops. Cowboy and square dancing mixed with contemporary ballet vocabulary call to mind Agnes de Mille’s famous contribution to Oklahoma! –the title Balletlujah! (if it’s to be taken seriously at all) can only be excused by putting it in that context.
Big Boned Gal is the second song at the dance and it’s where we meet the character named First Love (Tara Williamson), the hottest thing on the southern Alberta prairie as the song suggests to us. Williamson, who is not what you would call big boned in any way, does a lovely playful dance and is celebrated by her many admirers. As the song ends, the crowd suddenly falls away to the floor and leaves the two leading ladies alone to catch each other’s gaze.
It’s odd that the pas de deux that ensues is danced to a crooning break-up song (Roy Orbison’s Crying as recorded by k.d. lang) as the corps form pairs, informally slow-dancing. What is refreshing about Grand-Mâitre’s choreography is that the dynamic between the two women is not like the hetero love duets in ballet of the last 300 years. We don’t see the predictable advance and retreat, capture and escape power struggles of princely men and girlish women feigning timidity. Instead, these grown women dance in unison. They take turns supporting each other partnering under a giant moon, the woman in the dress doing most of the lifting. At times the dance is spritely and buoyant (enhanced by a projected animation of She flipping comically through the air) and suggestive (several times we see She offering herself on her back doing développés into wide-open splits for First Love). She demonstrates a strong series of pas de basques around the dancers, a step most often performed by the leading man.
Wash Me Clean, a twilight pas de deux with a projection of deep water in the background, could only be a dream sequence in dry Alberta. It’s a lovely image—the lead couple snuggling, dancing and smiling – if only it didn’t feature silly shiny sea monsters dancing by in fluid fashion. The water dream transitions to red lights and flesh-toned tight, skimpy outfits for Sexuality. Despite all the undulations and beautiful bodies, the song and choreography feel a bit dry and predictable.
After intermission, the women have clearly established themselves as a couple. They ride their motorcycle all over Alberta, finally ending up in the big city. However, once there, First Love gets immediately sucked into the allure of the glitz and finds another partner (mostly interpreted through animated projections in a cityscape scene). This leaves She alone while Jane Siberry’s Love Is Everything, as sung by k.d. lang, provides a bittersweet accompaniment. In the end, She re-establishes herself and her identity. She reaches out to her raven, which, projected onto the cyclorama, seems to fly her back to the prairie in a finale danced to lang’s version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
The ballet is really quite charming and the dancing well performed. While it is a ballet set to popular music (in some circles it might not be taken as seriously as some of the more historic works in Alberta Ballet’s repertoire, or contemporary works to music by contemporary composers), the general story line of Balletlujah! is not really any more or less profound than the majority of classic ballets. In fact, it is extremely rare to see a same-sex love story in the ballet world. What is interesting to note is that a Québécois choreographer is here in Alberta, making a ballet about life on the prairie featuring a lesbian relationship. And it is also noteworthy that Alberta, generally considered to be a conservative province, gave a lesbian ballet an enthusiastic standing ovation.