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Alberta Ballet's The Fiddle & the Drum

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Today the Canadian Press published a story about Alberta Ballet's collaboration with Joni Mitchell, which will be premiered next month. It's high time the Canadian media took notice of the company, but I can't help wishing it had happened under different circumstances.

Joni Mitchell's Alberta Ballet production sparks unexpected worldwide attention

I'm not crazy about ballets set to pop songs. I watched a retrospective of Maurice Béjart's ballets on television last night, and I really could have done without the bits to U2 and Queen. (I'll admit that I found dances set to Jacques Brel and Barbara much less objectionable.) On many levels I can understand making a ballet to songs by Joni Mitchell. She's a Canadian icon and she comes from Alberta. Jean Grand-Maître doesn't make bad ballets, so it's not as though I'm dreading this program. But it does bother me that a choreographer can spend years making fine ballets to beautiful "serious" music and get precious little attention in the national press, but as soon as he recruits a pop music legend, the newspapers are all over it and a TV broadcast is lined up. Obviously, undertaking this project was a very shrewd move from the marketing point of view, and I expect the final product will have a great deal of aesthetic merit, but from where I sit, the really big deal about Alberta Ballet's next program is that the company will be performing Balanchine's Serenade for the first time. Why aren't the local papers in a tizzy about that?

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The other night I just heard a very young Joni Mitchell's recording of "They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot." I had forgotten how sweet her young voice was, and how very different her later work was.

I wonder how poppy this new music will be, given the jazz influences that have filtered into her music over the last two decades.

The last time I saw her was on the televised special celebrating the 100th anniversary of Saskatechewan, and she looked like a dowager, especially her hair.

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but from where I sit, the really big deal about Alberta Ballet's next program is that the company will be performing Balanchine's Serenade for the first time. Why aren't the local papers in a tizzy about that?

Volcanohunter, you may be right to be excited about the upcoming Serenade as well as the other Balanchine ballets in the Alberta Ballet's rep. On Friday night, Jan 19, General Director Michèle Stanners was at New York City Ballet (for the Stravinsky program) just so excited to soak up the stuff! She introduced herself to a few people who were there to hear the "1st position" talk, myself included. Elyse Borne sets the Balanchine work for them.

I checked their website after looking at the article you linked to, and thought it was very good, reflecting a very active outreach program, and lots of community involvement.

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Helene, it will be interesting to see which of Mitchell's songs is used in the ballet, given their diversity. All that's been revealed about the music score so far is that it includes a previously unpublished and unrecorded song. If the ballet has an environmentalist theme, I'm sure "They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot" will also be included. I hope that taoofpooh, who will probably be the first poster to see the ballet, will fill us in.

I know that at least some audience members are going to see the program for reasons other than Joni Mitchell. In autumn I talked my sister into going to the ballet for the first time in many years. She went, husband in tow, and they both loved it, especially a piece by Jean Grand-Maître. Since then she's told be several times how much she's looking forward to Alberta Ballet's next program because she can't wait to see another ballet by "Mr. Grand Master." (Honestly, what a tough surname to live up to.)

Thanks for that bit of info, ViolinConcerto. As far as I know, this is Stanners' first position with a dance organization, so I'm glad to see her immersing herself in ballet. Naturally, I would be thrilled to see Alberta Ballet acquire more Balanchine ballets, though I'd also like to see them consolidate the Balanchine repertoire they have already. I'd very much like to see a revival of Prodigal Son; I think Yukichi Hattori and Christopher Gray would be terrific in the lead. It's been years and years since Alberta Ballet did Donizetti Variations, so it's high time to bring it back. However, I think more jazz or tap lessons are in order before they take another crack at Who Cares? Their performance last spring was strangely stiff.

Years ago, when Ali Pourfarrokh was director of the company, he introduced a couple of Tudor ballets to the repertoire. I'd like to see them back for his centennary. But I'm getting ahead of myself. If The Fiddle & the Drum brings in some new audience members, terrific. I hope some of them will be interested enough to stick around for the future. And if two television specials help make "Alberta Ballet" less of an oxymoron for the rest of Canada, I'll be pleased as punch.

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Jean Grand-Maître was interviewed on CBC Radio Two today. He admitted that Alberta Ballet was looking to make a ballet that would appeal to younger audiences, but the idea to use Joni Mitchell songs was not his own idea because, as a French Canadian, he doesn't know all that much about English-language popular music.

Initially his idea was to make a semi-autobiographical ballet about Mitchell, but she was more interested in making a ballet about the environment and war. Mitchell and Grand-Maître selected the songs together, one of which is "Slouching Towards Bethlehem." Because the video installation Mitchell has put together is designed to match the song lyrics quite literally in spots, the choreography itself is more abstract. Grand-Maître described the dancers in this piece as a "kinetic Greek chorus."

It will be interesting to see how this works out because in my previous experiences of watching ballets with video installations I tended to pay little attention to the video images. I suppose much will depend on where the video is projected.

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I posted this in the Links thread, thought it would be better to be here.

I saw it an LOVED it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It was fast paced and energetic and I have not seen Alberta Ballet so on their game.

The video installation may not work for some as it could be a bit of a distraction. I found the video in Carmina Burana annoying and not relevant but in The Kettle and the Drum, it worked to reinforce the emotional impact and the theme that both Maitre and Mitchell were going for. I also think that younger audiences who are technophiles will find the multimedia aspect of the ballet appealling. My only other comment was that the dancers who filled the upstage at times made the work a bit too busy.

Of note were Igor Chornovol and Kelley McKinlay`s pas de deux in Passion Play, I am sure it had some people squirming but the intimacy and sensuality where breathtaking. Also, in The Three Great Stimulants, Nicole Caron, Christopher Gray and Yukichi Hattori were non stop in a piece that was both technically and emotionally well executed.

The only other comment I have is that the sound was not super and as the songs were not Joni Mitchell`s most recognized (two have yet to be released) it was difficult to connect to the emotional content that was being expressed by the dancers.

Overall though I was thrilled

I can`t wait to see it again!!!! :):dry::clapping:

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Serenade was fantastic! I have seats on the floor and friends of mine were in the second balcony. At intermission they commented that they jokingly asked themselves whether or not it was Alberta Ballet they were watching because of the precision of the Balanchine lines. The effect was not as obvious from the floor but the technical mastery was evident. Maki Matsuoka is fabulous to watch. I am not a big Reid Bartelme fan and I have to say that I question his casting as I don't think he has the technique to support such a role. Jonathan Renna was not in the program and I did see him in the audience. Not sure why he was not dancing. Let me know if he danced in Edmonton. I listened to the pre-ballet talk and Elyse Borne spoke about having danced for Balanchine and the evolution of Serenade. Very interesting.

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We saw the ballet last night and really enjoyed it. Serenade was very well executed but I agree with Tao on the choice of Reid Bartelme. The women outdanced him last night, he seemed kind of lost on stage faced with all that female power flowing around him. I enjoyed Laetitia Clement last night, she had sustained energy throughout every move .

The Fiddle and the Drum really captured my kid's attention (aged 17, 15, 11). They were not familiar with her music but some of the songs had them dancing in their seats. They said they'd like to see it again.

We had to switch our tickets from Friday night to Saturday night and ended up sitting on the floor RC. Usually we're in the first balcony and sitting on the floor certainly gives you a different view. To make it more special for me anyway we sat right behind Veronica Tennant.

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Thanks for your report, binklemom. If your kids enjoyed The Fiddle & the Drum and Veronica Tennant came out from Toronto to see it, it would seem that Alberta Ballet hit upon a winning combination. Were the performances well attended? I came across a little story in the Calgary Herald about some people, presumably not regular dance-goers, who came out primarily to see Joni Mitchell. I wonder whether what they saw persuaded to check out future ballet performances.

I know that a television special about the ballet is being produced. Did you see any TV cameras around?

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Saturday night's peformance was sold out. Both Serenade and Fiddle and the Drum were very warmly applauded, sounded like a hockey game with all the cheering and hooting going on.

As to wether non-ballet goers would be encouraged to come out again to see Alberta Ballet, I would say, probably. People who came to see Joni Mitchell could not help being impressed by the energy and passion they saw on the stage Saturday night. Will they come and see the next production, Cinderella, I'd say no. Those performance will probably be filled with little girls and their mothers, but if they cast Jonathon Renna as a sexy prince that could pull in a whole different audience. People new to ballet might come to watch the next time there's contemporary ballet on the bill.

Michele Stanners is doing a wonderful job marketing Alberta Ballet here in Calgary. I see more and more jeans in the audience on younger audience members. Going to the ballet is increasingly seen as a "hot" activity. I am very encouraged for the future of dance in this city, not just ballet. The future of all companies depends on getting bums in the seats, preferably with season tickets in their pockets!

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I would like to add that according to the majority of Nutcracker girls, Kelley McKinley is the favourite!! :P
As a dance mother, I'm sure there was no way to avoid this opinion survey :off topic: (When I think now of the conversations to which I and my friends subjected my father on our yearly pilgrimages to Knick and Ranger games, I :) )
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On Feb. 10's Links page, Helene posted a link to the Globe:

Joni Mitchell's collaboration with the Alberta Ballet is reviewed in the Globe and Mail.
Perhaps the 45-minute work is a little too sentimental to be truly heart-stopping, but it's full of athletically thrilling dance choreographed by Grand-Maître, and it's set to non-stop Joni. That, on both counts, is a good start.
and dirac cited two features:
Joni Mitchell is interviewed by Bob Clark in The Calgary Herald (via The Ottawa Citizen).
Where once her targets were love and the breakdown of relationships, today, after something of a self-imposed hiatus, she's taking aim more than ever at the madness of war and the breakdown of the natural world.

Sitting this day in a downtown Calgary hotel restaurant to promote her upcoming collaboration with Alberta Ballet, Mitchell, who rarely gives interviews, is more than prepared to rally her loyal fans -- or "tribe," as she affectionately dubs them -- to the growing urgency of her message.

A report on the opening night audience in The Edmonton Journal

Most people had taken their seats by the time Mitchell made her entrance through a stage door. Once she was spotted, applause and chatter filled the room. The famously reclusive star handled the attention with a smile and a nod.

Her famous long blond locks swept up loosely in a clip, Mitchell dressed for the opening in flowing forest green silk. As she made her way to her seat -- walking with a subtle groove in her step -- one awestruck audience member remarked: "Wow. She's. So. Cool."

More here, and here.

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Oops, I see carbro's beaten me to it.

Did anyone see any reviews for Fiddle and the Drum?? I looked in the Globe on Monday but only saw Grammy news. How about the Herald? I did see Louis Hobson's review in the Sun. Edmonton??

Michael Crabb's review for the National Post

Mitchell's dance against death

Kaija Pepper's review for the Globe and Mail

Joni Mitchell's plea for paradise

Louis Hobson's review for the Calgary Sun

Joni Mitchell ballet inspiring

Bob Clark's review for the Calgary Herald

Joni enjoys rousing debut

Judging by these headlines, you'd think that Joni Mitchell had done the choreography. Honestly!

I expect there won't be any reviews from the Edmonton papers until the piece is performed here.

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I attended the program on Saturday. I can only express complete joy at Alberta Ballet’s acquisition of Serenade, and the dancers were determined to do it justice. Sometimes I got the impression that the dancers were so concerned with demonstrating precision, obviously appreciated by the audience, that the dancing itself lacked a freedom. Partly this may have been because the stage seemed too small to allow them to move out. Frankly, this surprised me; the stage of the Jubilee Auditorium is not small, yet the ballet looked cramped. How on earth does the Royal Ballet manage to dance this ballet at Covent Garden?

Sandrine Cassini was the Waltz Girl, Maki Matsuoka was the Russian Girl and Galien Johnston was the Angel of Death. The male soloists were Reid Bartelme and Matthew Lehmann. Of the women, I liked Johnston best: not quite Maria Calegari, but then who is? She had greater elegance and poetry than the other two, and I wish that Cassini and Matsuoka had been as tall. I can’t say I found Bartelme lacking. I think his dancing has an admirable lightness. The role doesn’t demand any pyrotechnics, and I didn’t seem to me that he was struggling. (Perhaps his prominent ribcage gives the impressions that he’s having difficulty, but as someone cursed with a similar build, I’m sympathetic to him on that score.) However, I don’t think he’s at all suited to partnering Cassini. Her dancing is fundamentally percussive, while his preeminent quality is lyricism. I think Cassini’s percussiveness was better suited to the Tall Girl in Rubies than to Serenade, but Elyse Bourne, who staged the ballet, must like her strong sense of accent.

Incidentally, Jonathan Renna did not dance in Edmonton either, nor did Leigh Allardyce, who was featured so prominently in the promotional materials for his program.

Having seen it only once, I’ll try to describe Jean Grand-Maître’s The Fiddle and the Drum as thoroughly as I can, though my account may not be entirely accurate. I’ll just have to wait for the television version to get it right.

“The Fiddle and the Drum”

Dancers covered in varying degrees of green body paint, the women wearing leotards and pointe shoes on bare legs and the men in trunks, emerge one by one before the front curtain. One dancer puts on a combat helmet and slowly falls to the ground, followed by another dancer and a third.

The curtain rises. There are rectangular video screens on both sides of the stage and a circular screen hanging above. A little girl in a white dress (Clara Stripe, daughter of ballet master Edmund Stripe) stands in a spotlight in the centre of the stage before being carried off by one of the dancers.

“Sex Kills”

Five spotlights fall on the floor, defining the dancing areas. The movement is fast and aggressive, with lots of large jumps and turns in attitude. The dancers standing further back provide counterpoint to those in front.

“Passion Play”

A woman (Sandrine Cassini) in an airy dress runs out on stage. She dances with a man (Igor Chornovol) who wears a loose shirt and has a streak of red paint on his chest. Later he dances with another man (Kelley McKinlay), suggesting, at least to my eyes, the camaraderie of soldiers rather than the intimacy and sensuality taofpooh noted. In the background other dancers provide counterpoint by bounding across the stage, parallel to the proscenium. Perhaps because I was watching from the balcony, I didn’t find this distracting or busy.

“The Three Great Stimulants”

This piece was the audience favourite, led by a spectacular Yukichi Hattori. His partners were two other small, speedy dancers, Nicole Caron and Christopher Gray, but at times they seemed to have trouble keeping up with him. The chorus in the background consisted of a trio of women, still dressed in their Serenade tutus, performing piqué turns, alternating with goose-steeping, Nazi-saluting dancers.

“For the Roses”

At this point the ballet takes a romantic turn, in keeping with the lush orchestration of the song. There is a starlit background and an image of the moon projected onto the circular screen. It’s a dance for some of the company’s leggier and more lyrical dancers: Galien Johnston and Reid Bartelme, Laëtia Clément and Blair Puente, and Alexis Maragozis with McKinlay. (Here is where I noticed the absence of Allardyce and Renna.) The movement is vaguely Tetleyesque, by which I don’t mean to suggest that it’s derivative, simply that the silhouette, sort of avian in line, is similar.

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem”

Again, the lines are reminiscent of Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries. The rhythm of the music is stronger and more couples come on stage.

“The Beat of Black Wings”

A man (McKinlay) enters, followed by two others (Bartelme and Puente). They put on combat helmets and perform choreography that includes more floor work. The counterpoint comes from a group of unlit women, who wave banners in the manner of Maoist ballets, followed later by other men in helmets. Choreographically, this was the most generic of the sections. Unfortunately, Echoing of Trumpets or Soldiers’ Mass it’s not.

“If I Had a Heart I’d Cry”

In this section Hattori was listed as co-choreographer. There is a contrast between a group of eight dancers, now wearing loose, unbuttoned shirts and dancing in circular patterns, and two couples on the stage right-stage left axis, all in soft shoes. At this point the ballets takes a more optimistic and lyrical tone.


A sort of cross between a number from Hair and a hip hop dance contest. What struck me most was that dancers of diverse backgrounds, from Canada, Australia, France, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Ukraine and the USA, all looked equally at ease in this section. They certainly seemed to be having a grand time, but it’s difficult to project that feeling into a theatre as cavernous as the Jube. The ballet ends with the return of the little girl, dancing in the central spotlight and making a peace sign with her fingers.

After the bows there is an encore to “Big Yellow Taxi” with the dancers cavorting around joyously, including a jumping duel between Hattori and Gray and a sort of lover’s quarrel between Hattori and Cassini. There is a solitary dancer carrying a briefcase and wearing a trench coat who marches across the stage at great speed, apparently still caught in the rat race.

The dancers all looked terrific, though special mention must go to Hattori for this rhythmic drive, the flow and dynamic variety in his phrasing and the amplitude of his movement.

I did not find the video installation distracting, but I paid little attention to it. My one quibble would be that the constant projection of images onto the central screen precluded proper blackouts.

Overall, the ballet’s biggest liability is the music. Pop songs nearly always have an unrelenting, monotonous rhythm track, and Joni Mitchell’s songs are no exception. I think Grand-Maître successfully avoided mimicking Mitchell’s lyrics, but he seems to have been sucked in by the insistent rhythm. Physically, there was lots of counterpoint in the arrangement of groups, but not enough rhythmic variety. I also suspect that he’s not the sort of choreographer who’s attracted by the “message” ballet. He’s very skilled at portraying the dynamics of matters of the heart, and, for that matter, he’s quite good at the angelic realm (Celestial Themes and the full-length Vigil of Angels). It’s sort of a pity that this ballet should be the one to get so much attention since it’s not a particularly accurate reflection of what he does best. Still, it’s a hit with audiences, and at 47 minutes it’s ready for its television time slot.

Originally this program was to have included Nacho Duato’s Without Words. Perhaps Alberta Ballet was afraid that the program would have been too long or that some of Duato’s and Grand-Maître’s choreography would look too much alike. Still, I would have liked to have had some Schubert, and I hope the ballet is rescheduled for the future.

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