You know you’re not walking into a typical evening at the ballet when they’re selling florescent boas and sparkly, star-shaped sunglasses at the merchandise table. Under the artistic direction of Jean Grand-Maître, the Alberta Ballet premiered “Love Lies Bleeding” to sold-out audiences in Calgary’s Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium. I had the opportunity to attend both the Wednesday, May 5th, dress rehearsal and the closing night performance on Sunday, May 9th, 2010 of this premiere that closed the Alberta Ballet’s 2009/2010 season. Following the incredible success of the company’s collaboration with Canadian music icon Joni Mitchell in 2007’s “Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum”, the premiere of this contemporary ballet garnered extensive local and national media attention.
Set to the music of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and choreographed by Jean Grand-Maître, “Love Lies Bleeding” reflects the journey of an individual, the struggles he faces and the power of love against all obstacles. Playing out as a rock ballet with a mixture of campy and emotional moments, the work delivers on the hype with a sensual spectacle.
The ballet follows the story of an unnamed main character, with obvious autobiographical parallels to John’s own life. The work opens with dancer Yukichi Hattori walking through the audience; he stops to watch a small child riding a tricycle in circles on stage while a montage of archival video clips of Hollywood personalities plays. After Hattori’s character jumps on stage, the first two pieces, “Benny and the Jets” and “I’m Going to Be a Teenage Idol”, reflect the youthful exuberance and success of the main character. In the following section, “Honky Cat”, Hattori’s character plays the piano as Inner Demon characters begin to infiltrate his carefree world and then seduce him into drugs in “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. He enjoys the high in “Rocket Man”, begins his downfall with “Madman Across the Water”, and is at the peak of his addiction with convulsions in “Have Mercy on the Criminal” prior to intermission.
Into the second act, tender, personal moments develop in “Sixty Years On” with Hattori watching a male pas de deux. He continues chasing his addiction in “I Need You To Turn To”, thrashes as he struggles with his vice in “The King Must Die”, and is left literally hanging by a wire, floating overhead as three angels sweep in with “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”.
The hilarity of the three drag queens in “Believe” provide much needed comic relief, while “The Bridge”, a tender duet between the main character and his male lover, culminates in a heartfelt resolution. An exuberant, ensemble dance party follows as the finale with “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)”.
The visual appeal of “Love Lies Bleeding” is striking. Extravagant sets and decadent costumes, all made at The Banff Centre, immediately create visual and tactile qualities. Costumes, by designer Martine Bertrand, include an array of skin-tight unitards with studded thong underwear, over-sized feathered shoulder pads, and many wigs and sunglasses. The sunglasses make Hattori appear masked throughout the show, until he finally emerges from addiction and removes them in “The Bridge” to approach his partner.
Grand-Maître integrates the visual elements to create a unified vision on stage. Along with the costumes, the set further draws us into an extravagant, larger-than-life setting. Incorporating a raised, rotating turntable centre stage, Grand-Maitre is able to highlight some of Hattori’s solo moments, such as his rapid series of handstands in “Benny and the Jets”. As well, set designer Guillaume Lord complements the story with hanging pianos and an angled video screen. The video components, by designer Adam Larsen, enhance the movement on stage and also create seamless transitions by providing a focal point during the on-stage costume changes. In one such transition, slow motion images of fanatic, cheering audiences follow the dancing in “I Need You To Turn To”.
The surprising range and depth of the selected music propels the narrative forward with musical styles from soulful jazz to beat-driven rock and roll and melancholy ballads. Grand-Maître approaches the music with versatility and sensitivity, effectively balancing the music and movement in different sections. Using the musical range to explore a range of dance styles, Grand-Maître skilfully shapes the tensions and narrative arc of the piece by combining classical ballet with some jazz and modern-inspired movement. While Hattori wheels around on rollerblades in a drug-hazed fantasy in “Rocket Man”, several sweeping duets move across the stage, performing lifts and jumps in continuing waves. We see their pathways in space by following the red lights on their costumes. Also in “Rocket Man”, Grand-Maître accents the quick piano music with pointe work, matching the vigour of the music and allowing the dancers to “rock out” while maintaining the balletic feel of the section. In more movement-driven pieces, such as “Sixty Years On”, Grand-Maître fills the space with large sweeping dance phrases, while the tormenting demons in “Have Mercy on the Criminal” maintain a smaller, more subdued vocabulary, allowing the heart-wrenching emotion in the song and in Hattori’s drug-addicted convulsions to be the focal point.
The strong character roles in the cast of thirty provide an opportunity for the dancers to express very personal movement and imprint dramatic signatures onto their performances. While a few moments lacked believability, overall the depth and conviction in the array of characters was a strong through-line in “Love Lies Bleeding”. The male dancers, in particular, showed dynamic range and individuality in their performances. In a very memorable instance in “Believe”, the three drag queens — performed by Anthony Pina, Patrick Doe and Mark Dennis — lip sync to the music with over-the-top attitude, pulling off stunning jumps in stiletto heels.
Hattori, on stage for virtually the entire two hours (including on-stage costume changes), showcased his emotional and technical range as the lead performer. Playfully cocky in such opening numbers as “I’m Going To Be A Teenage Idol”, he clearly establishes his star power with simple grooving movement and arm gestures on the rotating wheel centre stage. As he slips into drug addiction, Hattori embodies the conflict and struggle of his character, garnering wild applause for his convulsions on the floor in “Have Mercy On the Criminal”, completely exposed in nothing more than flesh-coloured briefs.
In his opening speech at the dress rehearsal, Grand-Maître explained that this was one of the hardest projects he’s ever done, but the result has certainly encouraged him to continue with musical collaborations. By specifically appealing to new audiences with such contemporary works as “Love Lies Bleeding”, Alberta Ballet is expanding its audience base. In fact, in his post-show speech on closing night, Grand-Maître said that approximately half of each “Love Lies Bleeding” audience was new to the ballet when he asked for a show of hands each night. Following this trend, Alberta Ballet will conclude their 2010/11 season with a new work in collaboration with Canadian singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan. While I imagine it will feature far fewer studded thongs and drag queens, based on Grand-Maître’s ability to skilfully navigate the relation between the movement and the music and create a narrative arc, it will definitely be worth checking out.