CALGARY -- Jean Grand-Maître did not grow up listening to Joni Mitchell. The artistic director of Alberta Ballet, a native of Hull, Que., leaned more toward Jacques Brel.
The acclaimed choreographer does, however, share the iconic singer-songwriter's passion for risky innovation. So two years ago, when a friend told him that Mitchell was born in Alberta and is also a painter, his restless toes started twitching. Could this loose connection, he wondered, lead to some sort of collaboration in tune with the company's new mantra of producing works "like nothing you've seen before"?
On Thursday night, that flutter of inspiration will soar into a grand allegro when The Fiddle and the Drum has its world premiere in Calgary. The new semi-abstract ballet is 48 minutes long and will feature nine songs from Mitchell's musical repertoire, including the recently recorded If that draws its lyrics from the Rudyard Kipling 1908 poem.
The production's theme, like the new album Mitchell is working on, addresses her long-time obsession with pending disaster from war and environmental damage. The stage will feature three large canvas screens, onto which her paintings and a new multimedia video that she created specifically for the ballet will be projected.
The entire program, titled Dancing Joni, will also include George Balanchine's Serenade, set to Tchaikovsky's Serenade in C major.
"I didn't just want to use the rights to her songs," says Grand-Maître, who says he is now one of Mitchell's greatest fans. "I wanted it to be a true collaboration."
After immersing himself in her work, Grand-Maître sent Mitchell a letter that read: "I would like you to imagine our spiritual Olympians giving life to your poetic metaphors in a protective world of sound, texture and colour that you will build around them."
The spiritual Olympians are the 26 dancers in an ambitious company led by Grand-Maître since 2002 that Michael Crabb, writing in New York's prestigious Dance Magazine, recently pegged as "the Canadian troupe to watch."
The protective world is what Grand-Maître now sees as the essence of Mitchell's eclectic artistry, which ranges from her early pop-folk to avant-garde jazz, symphonic orchestrations and more recent forays into hip hop.
"There is something about her music that is protective," he says.
"It's like a great Ingmar Bergman film. We live in a world with such a huge proliferation of information and imagery -- with the emergence of reality television, you don't even know what's real any more. But there's something about her music that brings you right back to your humanity and connects all the dots. She understands something so deep within us. She protects our human integrity in some way."
Roberta Joan Anderson, as she was named at birth, was indeed born in Alberta -- in 1943, in historic Fort MacLeod, the first outpost of the North West Mounted Police in Western Canada. When she was 9, her family moved to Saskatoon, the place she considers her hometown. After finishing high school, she attended the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary.
Grand-Maître and Mitchell met a little over a year ago at a restaurant in Beverly Hills, Calif., where she has lived since 1968.
"It was one of the most exciting dinners of my life," says Grand-Maître.
They sat on the terrace for three hours, talking about everything under the sun -- life, death, war, love, pagan rituals and the environment. By the end of the night, Mitchell agreed to be a part of the ballet.
Grand-Maître says he's glad he reached her then, since Mitchell is now once again in the spotlight with many demands on her time. In addition to the ballet, the new album she is recording and last week's induction into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame, she recently had an exhibit of new artwork in Los Angeles. This spring, she will be honoured with a new tribute album, to be released by Nonesuch Records. The artists covering her songs include Bjork (Boho Dance), Sufjan Stevens (Free Man in Paris), Elvis Costello (Edith and the Kingpin) and the artist now known once again as Prince (A Case of You).
Although Mitchell has declined to talk to the press about the ballet until later this week, after she arrives in Calgary for dress rehearsals, Grand-Maître says she was incredibly generous with the time she gave him.
"When we began meeting, I said, 'You're going to have to let me in a lot more.' We spent hours on the phone, talking about her songs."
The political theme she spearheaded was initially a difficult one for him. "I drive a little car. I turn the water off when I'm brushing my teeth. I'm against the war in Iraq. But to create a ballet along these themes? It was not something I had thought about before."
Since coming to the Alberta Ballet in 2002, Grand-Maître has created a niche for the company with strong theatrical works that deal complex human relationships, including a risqué and highly acclaimed adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons.
"Joni says she would prefer to write upbeat ballads about the beauty of life, but she can't bring herself to do it," Grand-Maître explains.
Of the 40 songs she presented to him, they eventually narrowed it down to nine. The score ranges from Sex Kills, an uncensored power-rock critique of everything from oil spills to little kids packin' guns at school and the general "massive mess" we're in to For the Roses, a lush, uplifting orchestration about the importance of artists. It's not exactly a collection of her greatest hits.
The video, which Mitchell spent more than 100 hours creating, will be projected onto a stretched Indian drum above the stage. Mitchell's paintings, T built on dark photo imagery of current events, will be projected on two huge screens on either side of the stage. And Grand-Maître says the theatre will be filled with more smoke and light than any ballet has ever seen.
"We wanted to create the feeling of a rock concert," he says. "I was thinking of Pink Floyd. She liked that a lot."
Grand-Maître, who has worked with such renowned ballet companies as the Opéra National de Paris and Teatro all Scala in Milan, admits he's never been more nervous in his career.
"Joni keeps saying, 'Oh, Jean, we can only do our best.' "