The Fiddle and The Drum is probably Jean Grand-Maitre's most important creation to date. Not only did his collaboration with Joni Mitchell inspire him deeply, but it also provided him with a new platform from which to create.
"Artistic creation must preserve its integrity and artists must work for the arts and do what they believe in, no matter what other people say. This one of the great things that Joni taught me in the process," says Jean Grand-Maitre.
When Grand-Maitre first approached Joni Mitchell two years ago, he wanted the ballet to be a retrospective piece about her life, proposal that she declined. Rather, she wanted the ballet to speak about her preoccupations of war and environmental neglect, which are reflected in her music and her latest visual artwork.
"Some people tell me that I am a pessimist, but I see myself as a realist. There are too many public individuals out there playing the ostrich and choosing not to see the reality of it all," says Mitchell. She adds, "politicians are mostly shortsighted and don't have a real vision. We are on this spaceship that is accelerating, the fuselage is coming apart and our leaders can only think of going even faster."
With two decades of creating ballets, from the narrative to the abstract, Artistic Director of Alberta Ballet Jean Grand-Maitre has choreographed to music of all genres, from the greatest classical composers to the latest modern compositions - but this is the first time in his career that he has so closely collaborated with the composer of his stage creation.
"At the beginning of the process, Joni selected songs that would blend well with her artwork. She started by sending me 15 songs and from there we selected nine of them for the ballet. She then sequenced the songs in an order that would provide a cohesive and dramatic narrative," explains Grand-Maitre.
While Grand-Maitre started choreographing powerful and athletic dance sequences to the chosen songs, Mitchell started her own choreography of synchronizing 40 images from her artwork to the lyrics of her music; these images will be projected on stage during the 48-minute performance.
"The creation of this ballet has forced me to reflect on my work in different ways. You see patterns that you never realized, but that you somehow knew were there. For instance, I often come back to the image of the Earth in my paintings and music, this fragile ball we live on as it floats through space," says Mitchell.
The selection of the music for the ballet covers four decades of Mitchell's work. "Joni's music is so powerful that you can basically have athletic bodies on stage and have the dancers interpreting the emotions of the music," says Grand-Maitre. "I am pushing the dancers to stretch and jump higher and do everything to the maximum."
His goal is to have the dancers move beyond the physicality of the ballet. He hopes that when they hit "that wall of exhaustion" that they will come through it with a sense of physical honesty. "If you push them enough they get tired and then the real breathing comes in," says Grand-Maitre, "I want people to see the physical effort but not to the point that you are detached from the humanity of it."
The Fiddle and The Drum is all about the delicate state in which humanity finds itself, the struggle for survival, and the increasing destruction and annihilation of various life forms around the globe. "The chemicals in the air are forcing trees and plants to close their pores, releasing less oxygen. And polar bears are cannibalizing one another," says Mitchell. "I fear that our problems are truly beginning to seem unsolvable. Living things are dying everywhere, this is a red alert."
In the process of creating the ballet, Mitchell helped Grand-Maitre understand the layers within her music, which he has visually transposed onto the stage. "I wanted to include all of the dimensions of her music into the choreography. For instance, in some pieces I have three dancers who are the voice, and then in the back I have an ensemble of duets who are dancing to the groove, which is often in contrast to the lyrics being sung," says Grand-Maitre.
This fusion ballet will have the feel of a rock show with smoke effects, intricate lighting, exposed metallic fixtures, multimedia screens projecting Joni Mitchell's artwork around and above the dancers. "If I did this well, then all of the various art forms will complement one another, rather than compete with one another. It should speak to the audience at various levels, to their intellect and their instinct," says Grand-Maitre.
"I realize that the ballet's theme can be described as pessimistic, but what can we really be optimistic about?" says Mitchell. "As an artist creating today, quite frankly, I can see no other subject matter that is of more importance now. We need more people to awaken to our reality."
"Would I prefer creating something more optimistic and positive? Absolutely But I simply cannot," says Mitchell. "I simply want to do my share in raising awareness about our fate."