The press interest in “The Fiddle and the Drum” by Alberta Ballet’s artistic director, Jean Grand-Maître, and legendary singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, surprised everyone – but probably not Mitchell, the cause of it all. Though apparently reclusive, she must be used to attention after four successful decades in the music business and, in order to publicize the ballet, was willing to hold court. The press descended in force, including a substantial feature in the New York Times that focussed, of course, on Joni. If the work’s choreographer, Grand-Maître, minded all the attention going to his famous collaborator, he was very discreet about it. He even gave Mitchell top billing in the program.
In many ways, the ballet, which premiered at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary, was indeed hers. As the program notes explain, the collaboration began as a biographical idea of Grand-Maître’s: he imagined she would supply the music and he would make a dance about her life. But when he met Mitchell in Los Angeles, where she lives, that changed. Mitchell has a second career as a painter and, at the time of Grand-Maître’s visit, she was working on a series of mixed media images depicting war and revolution. Influenced by these images, more serious ideas for the ballet emerged. As Mitchell states in her program note: “With [the] situation for all earthlings – man and animals – becoming so dire, I felt that it was frivolous to present a lighter fare – like ‘fiddling while Rome burned.’”
The forty-eight-minute work is set to a soundtrack assembled by Mitchell that mostly includes songs from a 1980s album, Dog Eat Dog, as well as two new pieces and a surprise encore to “Big Yellow Taxi” (the song with the famous line about paving paradise to put up a parking lot). Altogether, nine songs run back to back during “The Fiddle and the Drum”, all sombre in theme, an appropriate match for Mitchell’s images of destruction, which are featured in the visual design she also contributed. They are projected onto a circular screen above the dancers and on each side of the proscenium, where, unfortunately, they are so far to the left and right of the action that the choice became watching the ballet or studying the images.
If it’s only now I get to the choreography, well, the popular music machine is indeed overwhelming. One can only imagine what it was like to collaborate with such a high-powered icon as the sixty-three-year-old Mitchell, who clearly led the dance in terms of concept. The plea for sanity in these warring and environmentally threatened times that is the subject of “The Fiddle and the Drum” is not Grand-Maître’s usual territory – his last ballet was “Romeo and Juliet”, and his 2004 “Cinderella” is being remounted in March. Weighty political considerations are new to his art and it’s to his credit that he was willing to tackle them.
Wisely, the choreography is seldom linked literally to the imagery of the songs; instead, it responds more abstractly to the rhythms of the music and the melody of Mitchell’s voice. The style of the movement is varied, including hip hop, jazz, modern and club within the mostly ballet vocabulary. The company of twenty-five dancers, plus three guest artists, superbly fulfilled Grand-Maître’s many gorgeous arabesques and leaps, and their athleticism, grace and unpretentious artistry was refreshing. But, given the theme of destruction, there was too much beauty.
The theatrical sections were more apt, such as the opening, which is set to an early Mitchell song that asks: “How did you come to trade the fiddle for the drum?” A single dancer stands still before us, costumed in white trunks, his bare-chested body streaked with dark pink and green paint. Other dancers join him, similarly costumed (the women are in short leotards). Some wear First World War-style army helmets. They huddle close, and trudge upstage.
During a song titled “Passion Play”, I enjoyed the balletic duet by Igor Chornovol and Kelley McKinlay. The two men are about the same height and build, which meant the choreographer worked with equal body forces here, giving their vigorous but sensual relationship a welcome change of dynamic from the many role-bound male/female duets.
The sections involving a little girl (Clara Stripe) were another highlight. She first appears in a white dress just walking across the stage; the next time, she does a veritable mini-Isadora routine. But it’s her appearance at the end of the ballet, to a song based on Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If”, that left me, at least, all choked up. Stripe raises two fingers high into the air in a peace sign – a gesture that only a child could perform convincingly in these post-9/11 times.
The double bill opened with a crisp rendition of Balanchine’s mysteriously romantic “Serenade” from 1934. Though it’s an often-performed ballet, this marked the premiere by the Alberta Ballet dancers, who handled it with style. In the context of Mitchell’s remarks, was a performance of “Serenade” a case of “fiddling while Rome burned”? The relevance of this ballet could be disputed in our hard contemporary world but, then again, ballet only retains its past through performance. And, as Mitchell sings in the evening’s finale: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone….”
By Kaija Pepper