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Not a Chalk Mark
A Review of "Dancing Joni and Other Works: The Fiddle and The Drum", February 8, 2007 by Brett Code [official JMDL/JoniMitchell.com reporter]
Joni matters. What she writes and sings matter, and her music matters. A modern ballet danced to the best sound modern technology can deliver demonstrates the power of the music behind the lyrics, the jump, the verve, the beauty, and the hope. This was Joni danced, so beautifully danced that one saw and heard, perhaps for the first time, the hope in the music that surrounds and strongly supports the anger, realistic observation, and some time hopelessness of the lyrics.
The back of the stage was a dark, black wall. In its center was a huge orb, a native drum with a screen as the drum skin, regularly flashing images, both beautiful and challenging, of the Earth, the moon, the continents, shadows and light, life and death, and clouds, lots and lots of clouds. Sex Kills opened with an image of Africa from space; Passion Play, with an image of South America, If I Had a Heart, I'd Cry", with an image of Antarctica that looked like a floating white rose, at once its own shadow and generating its own light.
For the Roses opened with a close-up of a full moon, the bright side of the moon filling the entire drum. As the song was danced, the moon shrank, and shrank, and shrank. Near the end, it completely disappeared, leaving two things: complete darkness in an empty sky; and a statement: thieves may have left the moon behind; humans are leaving nothing. At the end, the moon re-appears, flooding the stage with moonlight - perhaps it's not too late.
Joni has never sounded so triumphant as she did in the Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary that night. The Jube is a 30-year old auditorium, with a twin in Edmonton. Both are identical, both were recently re-furbished for better sound and better sightlines, and both are presently the sites honoured with the opening of this fabulous ballet by the Alberta Ballet company, its young and fabulously creative artistic director, Jean Grand-Maitre, and by Joni Mitchell.
Joni was there for the February 8 opening, and it is the closest I have ever been to her. The last time I came close, I was in the pit taking photographs at her show with Dylan in Ottawa in 1998 (organized for me by the late, great Wally Breese). This time, I had a seat on the aisle, and she flowed past - less than an arm's length away - smiling and excited to and from her seat a few rows behind my wife and me. You could tell she was proud, and you could tell that she knew what none of us yet did, that this show was better than all the hype preceding it. Joni continues to draw huge attention in Alberta, and this night was no exception.
Once the ballet danced her music, she must have been thrilled. It was powerful, emotional, uplifting, and brilliant, surpassing by far the great expectations that had been developed by all the articles and talk that preceded the show.
One of my work colleagues is connected to the Alberta Ballet. She gave me a disc that had the planned songlist on it: The Fiddle and The Drum, Sex Kills, Passion Play, The Three Great Stimulants, For the Roses, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, The Beat of Black Wings, and Both Sides, Now.
Having thought about the lyrics, I wondered about the last choice. If they were going to bring it all to a happy ending, why not use The Circle Game? Thematically, this collection of lyrics was demonstrative of a very important cycle: the fiddle has again been replaced by the drum, and Joni is again witness and critic, the artistic canary in the coal mine.
It is no accident that the show is entitled and opens with The Fiddle and The Drum. Joni practically started there, with an anti-war song that asked questions that are being asked again today. She was an outsider then, a Canadian recently moved to America. Almost 40 years later, the questions asked in that concise a capella poem are again on the front and editorial pages of our newspapers. Why, since you are about good and freedom, do we all fear you? Why do you fight us all? Why sticks? Why fists? Why fear-beating drums?
The songs chosen for this ballet cover many themes, and the one most talked about before and after the opening night was the environmental theme, the one Mama and Betsy advised in Song For Sharon. But, at least for me, this show was not so much about all that's wrong about paving paradise as it was about the harm caused by bombers riding shotgun and not turning into butterflies than about environmentalism generally. In, around, and through it all was still the call for us to get back to the garden. The images, particularly her new art, were of a world still caught in the devil's bargain. Thematically, it was all more Woodstock than Big Yellow Taxi but the themes of both were definitely present, both subject again to exclamation and, this time, to dance.
It opens a capella, only 2 of the stanzas of The Fiddle and The Drum needed to permit each member of the company to steal through the slit in the curtains, appearing costumed by a wan, jaundiced yellow light. They stood or kneeled, touching, each barely dressed, thin, made up to look starved, scared, haunted, together facing out toward the arrival of something apocalyptic. A couple put on soldier's helmets, and die.
The curtains open: Sex Kills (still one of my very favourite songs). The music is alive here; the sound, big, imposing; the rhythm, all around us, and the dancers bring it alive. Around them, stark images in greens, browns, and pinks, of oil refineries, tankers, flag-bearing girls in odd formations, soldiers. On the floor, the incredible athleticism of remarkable dancers who hear the percussion, any percussion, all of it - the rhythm of hope - and cause us first to see, then to hear the same rhythms. There may be despair in the lyrics; there is none in the music behind them. This song rocks, and the dancers lay bare its power.
In each song, the dancers, men and women, are minimally dressed in tight skin tone clothing. Their costumes are the creation of light, are light itself - bright, stark yellows and greens that bring them alive in front of the dark, black wall behind. They are the opposite of silhouettes, perfectly, brilliantly clarified; they are to behold. When they jump, they freeze, and we see sheer beauty, but coloured through what one imagines to be sickening, poisoned air. It's a dance whose lighting director is T.S. Eliot - remember The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
The dancers fall into line and form a dance circle. We see the fire, and it's not one that they dance around. It's one danced from the inside out, the fire of the observer, of the poet, made manifest, each dancer a flame, reminding us that it does not have to be "just ice", that it can be justice, that the crazy ions can be re-done. The physical, human movement is an incantation rebuilding the balance.
Sex Kills is followed by Passion Play, The Three Great Stimulants, For the Roses, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The message is the same; the images change, but only slightly, and the dancers continue to uplift, to warn, to dance Joni.
Let me tell you that for me seeing Joni danced was the most incredible thing. How many times when I was younger did I turn up at a party with a Joni album, a cassette and, eventually, a cd, only to be told by some thunderhead: "You can't dance to Joni Mitchel; are you crazy?" The Alberta Ballet has finally and forcefully shouted my redemption: "Of course you can, Thunderhead. Watch and learn. Listen, hear the music, the finely balanced rhythm, the deep resonance, the momentous reverberation. Feel your bones tremble, your muscles move. And, poor Thunderhead, watch a sophisticated ballet audience try to stay in their seats."
It was incredible. The company brought it all out, the part of Joni's music that is irrepressibly vibrant. This is my advice: take the song list, turn up the volume and, this time, don't sing along just because you can - listen to the music. It is wondrous, a celebration. And so was the ballet.
Then came The Beat of Black Wings, a climax if ever there was one. The men put on soldier's helmets and were what the lyrics describe - night-frightened children, feeling things explode inside. I remember an overwhelming thrill as I listened, eyes wide and amazed at the movement on the stage. Of course there was no thought of "bleeping" Joni out as she sang what had become so patent to all of us - she was not talking about Killer Kyle but of herself:
There's a war zone inside me
I can feel things exploding
I can't even hear the fucking music playing
For the beat of the beat of black wings
And what we knew, having born witness to Joni's first ballet, was that she is anything but a chalk mark in a rainstorm. She is the beat of black wings though, and she'll be there eternally, beating.
There was an odd comment in the night's program. In a section called "Message From Joni Mitchell, the following was said:
"I've included two new songs in the ballet but most of the material comes from an album called Dog Eat Dog, which was poorly received in the '80s, and was almost immediately repressed for more than 20 years. The set also includes two poems, which I set to music but did not write. One is Rudyard Kipling's If, and the other a song I call Slouching Toward Bethlehem, which was adapted from the Yates' poem The Second Coming."
I do not understand what she said about Dog Eat Dog, since only Stimulants comes from that album. I take it that she means that most of the material takes from the spirit of Dog Eat Dog. I only wished that they had danced Fiction, Tax Free, Shiny Toys, or how about Ethiopia or Smokin' (Empty, Try Another)? Perhaps they'll do this again.
The main set finished with the new songs: If and If I Had a Heart, I'd Cry. They were lovely. The images used for If were a collection of images from space, opening at first with a mysterious flower-like thing that I didn't identify until the end. It was a tour of the world's continents and countries from space, showing the light that each emits. Antarctica emits no flashes of light, shows off no big cities or great densities of light. What was incredible about the picture was that Antarctica somehow emits its own light and appeared as a beautiful flower.
That continent finds its light inside itself, where Joni finds her genius, and where we find our strength and hope. This was a human performance, meant for humanity. The dancers, externally illuminated, clearly find their force within, and shine brightly. They, and this, are Joni's latest golden egg, glittering for us all.
Oh, one more thing. There was an encore: Big Yellow Taxi. Fast and furious, it was fun. Everyone was standing; we were, all of us, part of the dance, dancing Joni.
A Woman of Heart and Mind: Alberta Ballet Premieres New Joni Mitchell Work
By Karen McCarthy [official JMDL/JoniMitchell.com reporter], Calgary, Alberta.
February 8, 2007 was a snowy, below-zero night in Calgary, Canada. But that didn't matter to the 2700 people who turned out to the world premiere of The Fiddle and The Drum, a new piece choreographed by Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maître, set to some of Joni Mitchell's most politically-charged music and staged alongside projections of her latest artwork, triptychs depicting images of war and destruction.
The Fiddle and The Drum is a stunning 45-minute work of art, melding music, visual art and dance into a seamless whole. The love and admiration in the audience was palpable, and the performance was met with a prolonged standing ovation. My throat was sore for a couple of days from cheering.
When I was 18, I played Joni Mitchell's new Court and Spark album over and over until my college house mates begged me to stop. They thought I should get out more. One of them bought me a paperback copy of Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking.
But something in Joni's music spoke to me as a brooding, searching adolescent. It speaks to me still as a moody middle-aged woman. I was never one to follow a trend, and the things I believed in then are mostly the things I believe in now. And hey, it isn't all moody and broody; not by a long shot. Neither am I.
I still have that album and others, but until last summer, nothing to play it on. Our old turntable wasn't hooked up and our albums were superseded first by cassette tapes, then CDs, then MP3s. But I ordered a new stereo system with a turntable and out came all the albums. Simon and Garfunkel. The Beatles. Bob Dylan. The Band. Early Elton John. The Who. Crosby Stills Nash and Young. Cat Stevens. James Taylor. And Joni. Oh, man, hearing them again after nearly 30 years, on albums that create an artistic whole. Rediscovering the music of Joni Mitchell was bliss - not that I had ever truly left it behind.
When I heard that Alberta Ballet was going to premiere a new work set to the music of Joni Mitchell, I got excited. You have to understand that this was a rare occurrence for me. I had worked as a publicist-slash-marketing person for performing arts groups in Banff and Calgary for over 25 years. It had gotten so that I couldn't go to any arts production - anywhere - without feeling I was at work. I finally had to give it up because I couldn't bear the sight of an empty seat. Now I work for a college.
Calgary and Edmonton were keyed up as the premiere drew close. Calgary just passed a million in population last summer, and Edmonton is Alberta's capital city, lagging a little behind in growth. Alberta Ballet covers both cities (despite the fact that they are bitter political and hockey rivals) and is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Our local papers gave extensive coverage to the evolution of the new work. They even interviewed Joni herself, which doesn't happen often. International media were interested. (It's a very Canadian trait to find this significant.)
She's practically a home girl, born in Fort MacLeod, about 150 miles south of Calgary. And she went to art college in Calgary and performed at the Depression coffee house in the 60s. Not being a Joni fan-in-the-sense-of-fanatic, these are facts I didn't know. I thought she was from Saskatoon, but was always proud she was Canadian. And I always loved her music.
So I got my hands on some tickets, hassled my way through the traffic and the parking and went to the premiere. Calgary loves a major event. As we took our seats, a ripple of excitement went through the audience. Joni Mitchell had come through a side door. She wore an outfit in soft sage green and her long gray-blonde hair was clipped up.
The evening began with Serenade by George Balanchine, one of the 20th century's greatest choreographers and one of the first to create images and explore abstract ideas through his dancers. As such, it was a fitting companion piece to The Fiddle and The Drum.
The program notes state that The Fiddle and The Drum is about the delicate state in which humanity finds itself, the struggle for survival, and the destruction of life forms around the globe. "I fear that our problems are truly beginning to seem unsolvable. Living things are dying everywhere, this is a red alert," noted Joni Mitchell of the new work. "Would I prefer creating something more optimistic and positive? Absolutely. But I simply cannot and I want to do my share in raising awareness about our fate."
The selection of music for the ballet was a collaboration between Joni Mitchell and Jean Grand-Maître, included two new songs and spanned four decades: The Fiddle and The Drum, Sex Kills, Passion Play, The Three Great Stimulants, For the Roses, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The Beat of Black Wings, If I had a heart I'd cry and If. The encore was an energetic urban take on Big Yellow Taxi.
Why wasn't I familiar with some of these pieces, I wondered. They were fantastic, and the dancers brought them to full, breathing, gasping life against a haunting backdrop of Joni's imagery. The sight of our beautiful, fragile earth was in sharp contrast to the poisonous green negative images captured, as I understand it, from Joni's broken television over several months. Soldiers marching. Statues toppling. Faces shouting. A tiny human figure lost in a vast space.
Onstage, a small child wandered innocently through most of the scenes as the dancers leapt and whirled around her to the driving beat of the music.
The best thing that can possibly happen during a performance happened. I lost myself in the music, the images, the sheer physicality of the dance. So there won't be any step-by-step analysis of each piece, because the analytical part of me just shut down and was absorbed in the moment. In all the moments. The performance lasted an eternity and was over in a flash - both at once.
The completeness of Joni's vision was awe-inspiring: a full-on assault on all the senses. What I have always admired about her is her ability to continually reinvent herself as an artist while remaining true to herself, refusing to be pigeon-holed for the convenience of the "star-making machinery", as relevant today as she was 40 years ago.
Call myself a Joni Mitchell fan, huh? Next day, I came to this website to learn as much as I could. And I ordered a whole bunch of CDs so I can continue to explore her music.