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Joni Mitchell's The Fiddle and the Drum nothing short of astonishing Print-ready version

by Gail Johnson
Georgia Straight
January 25, 2010

Wherever it tours, Alberta Ballet's The Fiddle and the Drum garners serious buzz because of the star power of Joni Mitchell, the legendary singer whose music inspired the production. But make no mistake: the real highlight is the dancing. Choreographer Jean Grand-Maître doesn't just make contemporary ballet accessible. He makes it thrilling.

The Fiddle and the Drum was a fitting selection to help kick off the 2010 Cultural Olympiad. The athleticism that's on display throughout the Alberta Ballet artistic director's 100-minute show is nothing short of astonishing.

The movement is relentless and fast-paced, but it's not just Olympian physicality that wows. So do the meticulously detailed and ever-inventive steps. There's apparently no end to the fresh, new flourishes in Grand-Maître's vocabulary. He never repeats himself.

Here, he calls on the 30 dancers to execute some of classical ballet's most technically demanding steps to double time; to soar over the stage, arms reaching to the heavens, in triumphant grands jetés; and to propel themselves across the floor, planklike, using only their elbows and toes. Then there are the funky hip-hop-inspired sequences toward the work's end and the downright sexy gestures wherein the men and women pose, preen, and swivel their hips in full, lusty circles.

Grand-Maître demands as much artistry as endurance, however. An unforgettable scene takes place during Mitchell's "Ethiopia", when the performers fuse ballet with African dance. Stomping and kicking with flexed feet and bending forward while keeping their backs flat, they add precision to the primeval. Once again, Grand-Maître keeps the pacing swift to captivating effect.

The choreography cleverly aligns with the score, which consists of 14 of Mitchell's songs. Male dancers exhibit testosterone-fuelled stamina in "The Beat of Black Wings", a song about a young soldier. Meanwhile, during "Slouching Toward Bethlehem", which is based on a William Butler Yeats poem, a dozen performers march in a sombre circle, their heads hung low, to the line "Things fall apart; The centre cannot hold."

Produced on a budget of $90,000, the production is minimalist: dancers mostly wear skin-tight shorts, tank tops, and body paint that outlines their muscles. There is no set, other than a globe-shaped screen hanging at the back of the stage; Mitchell's own paintings and videos are projected onto it. She includes images of everything from men in combat gear to jungle animals to restless ocean waves.

She's deliberately chosen songs that speak to the terrible state of world affairs, specifically environmental degradation and the absurdity of war. But The Fiddle and the Drum is neither preachy nor depressing.

Quite the opposite, in fact. You can't help but be moved by Mitchell's version of Rudyard Kipling's "If". And the work closes with a new, high-energy rendition of "Big Yellow Taxi", wherein the dancers get down into full-on party mode, shaking their gorgeous bodies like they're in a night club.

The Fiddle and the Drum has it all. I'd take it over speed skating any day.

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Added to Library on January 28, 2010. (697)

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