Why Alberta Ballet's dance with Joni Mitchell is drawing attention from around the globe
Dancing Joni & Other Works runs Feb. 8 to 10 at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium
If it takes a homegrown star to clean up Calgary's Cowtown image there's no more qualified daughter-of-Alberta than Joni Mitchell.
The world renowned singer-songwriter, artist and icon of a generation has brought international attention to the city this week by joining with Alberta Ballet for an original production that sets her songs and artwork to dance.
"This kind of a production can go a long way to change the image of the province in terms of arts and culture," says executive director of Alberta Ballet Michele Stanners.
"Alberta may not be perceived as a centre for arts and culture in the country, but we who are in the arts and we who follow the arts know there are very exciting and cutting edge things happening here."
Days removed from the world premiere of Calgary Opera's Frobisher, which brought Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean to opening night, Alberta Ballet is now calling the attention of the world with their latest production.
The centrepiece of Dancing Joni & Other Works is The Fiddle and The Drum, a 45-minute collaboration between Mitchell and Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maitre.
The work, featuring the entire 26-member company, is set to 10 Mitchell songs -- including two completely new numbers -- and incorporates 64 large canvases in a previously unseen multimedia show also by the artist.
Mitchell says her inspiration for the work is the current conflict in the Middle East as well as the environment. "With our situation for all earthlings -- man and animal -- becoming so dire, I felt that it was frivolous to present a lighter fare -- like 'fiddling while Rome burned.' "
Mitchell, notoriously media shy, is releasing a new album this spring, her first original album in nearly 10 years. She has, however, agreed to a certain amount of accessibility for the promotion of the ballet and many media outlets have fallen in line for the rare opportunity.
"I've spent many years trying to track down certain people, some of whom you never get," says Robin Eggar, contributing editor of the Times of London, who arrived in Calgary last week to cover the story.
Eggar has failed in countless attempts to interview Mitchell in the past.
"On a wish list (of interview subjects) she is certainly one of the top," he says. "She hasn't done anything for a long time and there are some new songs in the production. The interest from our readership is there."
The singer-songwriter herself attributes most of the current media frenzy over Dancing Joni to the fact she is recording new material for the first time in nearly a decade.
Much of the interest, however, undoubtedly stems from her reluctance to speak to the media.
Along with daily newspapers across Canada and Europe, arts magazines and the British tabloid Hello, The New York Times has also taken this opportunity to feature Mitchell.
Magazines such as Newsday and Maclean's have also featured the story.
Countless television and radio stations around the world have requested interviews with Grand-Maitre and his dancers.
Regardless, Mitchell is famously outspoken when it comes to the role media has played in her career.
Apparently, her views haven't softened.
"You can be 99.9 per cent assured that journalism has dropped into the bucket," Mitchell told the Herald, warming to the subject. "It's stupid and dumbed-down just like everything else, especially in the last 10 years.
"They're disagreeable types, and they're gunning for me -- I don't know why.
"Are you supposed to survive this stupidity again and again and again?"
Eggar admits the international interest in this story may stem from Mitchell's avoidance of the media and her return to her Canadian -- and more specifically Albertan -- roots.
"We really do live in a Global Village now so maybe 10 years ago this would have seemed like a million miles away but now it is of interest to our readers," he says.
"Also, if it is successful, this is something that could travel."
Whether the production will go on tour remains to be seen but, the dance company can look forward to a larger audience on the small screen.
JoeMedia and Alberta Ballet are teaming up to produce a one-hour television special for CHUM Television.
The BBC has also expressed interest in sending a camera crew to film the event, and Bravo, the specialty arts channel, will broadcast the performance at a later date.
For Kelly McKinlay, a five-year member of the company, all this attention means a lot of overtime.
For dancers, warm-up class starts the day from 9:30 to 11 a.m. followed by rehearsal until 2 p.m. On this particular day McKinlay squeezes five interviews into his hour-long lunch before hitting rehearsal again from 3 to 6:15 p.m. On Mitchell's first night in Calgary, the company then performed a full run-through for the icon after rehearsals.
McKinlay managed to fit our interview in at 10 p.m.
"I'm exhausted and my body hurts, but the more tired I am the more revved up I get. I can't give up now -- I have to dig deeper to find more."
It helps that Kinlay grew up on Mitchell's music.
As a ballet dancer, he is used to being inspired by emotionally charged classical music, but with Mitchell's work he finds himself relating his movement to her powerful lyrics as well as the music.
"To see her reaction to the show was unbelievable," he says. "She was clapping through the whole thing."
As Mitchell's return to Alberta inspires those artists who live and create in the province today, the collaboration between the two may prove to strengthen arts and culture as a whole.