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Social distortion shapes ballet   Print

by Stephen Hunt
Calgary Herald
February 6, 2007

The Fiddle and The Drum runs Thursday to Saturday at the Jubilee.

If Joni Mitchell's new artworks were songs, they'd be protest songs.

"The images are very graphic," says Los Angeles-based Canadian Robert Ivison, who helped Mitchell assemble the triptychs that will serve as the visual backdrop for The Fiddle and The Drum, a 48-minute contemporary ballet collaboration between Mitchell and Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maitre.

"They're of war and death and destruction as well as crowds that are being swayed by the usual suspects, political leaders and otherwise."

Adds Grand-Maitre: "It's heavy and light at the same time. It's the same dichotomy you always get with Joni Mitchell's music and art. It's the mixture of everything humanity can be, all at once, the best and the worst of what we are."

Mitchell, who studied fine art for a year in Calgary (at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology) in the mid-60s, before setting off to pursue music, is an accomplished visual artist, albeit a reluctant one.

A recent show of her new work (which featured the images used in The Fiddle and the Drum) at the Lev Moross Gallery in Los Angeles was only her second major showing of the decade.

"I did have a couple of shows, but they were only exhibitions," Mitchell says. "When the press asked me about it, I said I painted them to go with my couch."

Mitchell described for the Herald her process for creating the images that will appear in The Fiddle and the Drum.

In Los Angeles, where she has lived since 1968, Mitchell turned on her old, flat-screen television, only to discover it was on the fritz, displaying images as negatives. After pushing a few buttons, Mitchell returned to the image, a black and white movie that was now running in green and pink, then pulsing to green and yellow.

A repairman told her to throw the television out, but Mitchell had other ideas and began photographing the images with disposable cameras, her preferred model.

She snapped images from three television channels -- Turner, CNN and The History Channel--with the cameras, capturing an array of images that combined war reels, late breaking news, and old 1930s movies by people like Busby Berkeley, Groucho Marx and Charlie Chaplin. Sixty four of those shots have been assembled into triptychs whose images will be flashed on screens as 26 Alberta Ballet dancers perform nine numbers by Mitchell during The Fiddle and the Drum.

The images were collected over six months of Mitchell photographing her television for six hours a night.

"I shot any time it looked graphically interesting," Mitchell says. "After going through the process, I began to be a collector--a collector of automobiles, embraces, people in cars, and so on. All kinds of subject matter. Even directors like Spielberg, Hitchcock. I began to start topic books, and one of the books I had was War, Torture and Revolution.

"I would never really watch those programs, but as I began to be a collector, I'd go, 'Oh, another war movie!' and I wouldn't care if it was a good story or a bad story. I'm just waiting for the moment in the distortion when it turns into graphic art."

The result will be a backdrop of contemporary media images with a foreground of live performance.

"We've decided to really strip the stage," Grand-Maitre says. "At the beginning, we thought we'd make it like a rock show, with a lot of moving lights, like Pink Floyd. It's very baroque already, with lots of changing images on three panels. It's like a three-ring circus there--four rings with the dancers--and so we thought to strip the stage of all lights and artifice, just a black box with three projection screens, and these very intricate dances would be enough already."

Meanwhile, the Alberta Ballet's costume department, led by Pamela Kaye, was given Mitchell's arresting images, and asked to create costumes to match.

Kaye, upbeat and undeterred by the raised profile of her latest challenge, admits to being nervous.

"I think first starting it--yeah," Kaye says. "But once the ideas fell into place, the fabrics came and I saw things on a larger scale instead of a little square (image), it was OK. There's very few surprises because I work very closely with my staff all along the way. So I know pretty closely how it's going.

"I think this one was probably the most challenging," she says. "Because you want to be true to her artwork, so it's definitely a challenge."

Kaye has a team of designers constructing costumes out of a shimmery silk-polyester blend called Soiree, which looks very cocktail dressy, shiny and sassy. Most of the costumes are pretty skimpy, too -- the dancers will mostly be clothed in body paints that match their Soiree outfits.

The general feeling after seeing the ballet's seamstresses, including Stacy Frislev, Brenda Cooley and Nicole Minogue, creating the costumes that Kaye designed is that perhaps polyester gets a bit of a bad rap.

"Yeah, it does," says Cooley. "Stuff comes off really easily. It travels well. It's great on the truck." (The show travels to Edmonton immediately after Calgary).

Does it all sound like a bit of sensory overload? If you're from the old school of one controlling idea at a time, maybe. The Myspace generation, however, are apt to see it all as just another day at the ballet.

"Young people today, I look at them and they can work four, five pages of the computer at the same time," Grand-Maitre says. "And (look at) MuchMusic, all these images that change every half second all the time. So young people I think will really be able to assimilate the whole thing, and that's important for us to bring a new audience, a younger audience, and stimulate them.

"Older audiences are more contemplative and want to relax and zoom in on the one thing at one time. So I think we'll get mixed reactions--a lot of older people love to be stimulated too, but I think it's going to be interesting to see the generational reactions to this ballet."

 

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