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A Little Light Shines on the Hope & the Hopelessness Print-ready version

by Mark Scott
February 27, 2010

JONI MITCHELL'S THE FIDDLE AND THE DRUM'S U.S. PREMIERE IN SEATTLE - A Little Light Shines on the Hope & the Hopelessness

The U.S. premiere of the Alberta Ballet Company's  'Joni Mitchell's The Fiddle and the Drum' at the Paramount Theater in Seattle on February 23rd was given an enthusiastic reception.   This unique ballet is comprised of a series of pieces choreographed to songs written & recorded by songwriter Joni Mitchell.   And the audience's reactions were more akin to what might be expected at a Joni Mitchell concert than at a ballet.  Applause and shouts of approval broke out after most of the songs and a rousing, if slightly less than rowdy,  standing ovation came at the end.

Duality has been a thematic element that has run through Joni Mitchell's lyrics from the beginning of her career.  Nothing is completely black and white.  Her songs are often studies in contrast.  'Both Sides Now' is perhaps her best-known song and is a prime example of this.  She has also expressed her concern for the environment, beginning with her reference to 'symphonies and dirty trees' in the song 'Nathan La Franeer' on her 1968 debut album and culminating with strong statements  of her view of the earth as a planet nearing a point of irreversible, human-made ruin on her last release, 2007's 'Shine'.

These elements come together and come to life in 'The Fiddle and the Drum'.   Mitchell designed the set for the ballet which is not much more than a bare stage with a large round screen hanging over the center.  This minimalist setting provided a blank space in which living, moving, three-dimensional images were created.  These images were achieved by the combination of the movements of the Alberta Ballet Company, choreographed by the company's Artistic Director, Jean Grand-Maitre, the sometimes stark, sometimes soft & diffuse lighting designs of Pierre Lovoie, and images projected on the round screen that included many pieces of Mitchell's art from her recent 'Green Flag Song' exhibit.  The catalyst that brought all of these elements together and ignited the spark of life from the resulting amalgam was, of course, the words and music of Joni Mitchell.

The result was a striking, powerful, often beautiful, mostly dark concoction that still emitted an occasional  flicker of hope that flared up and made a glimmer of light that sometimes  floated and sometimes streaked  and finally blazed across the stage.  In the end this pinpoint of light, that seemed to be small in proportion to the number of negative images projected in the words, pictures and dance, was strong enough to provide a balance.  In spite of her dark vision of the state of the planet and the human race, Joni Mitchell seemed to be holding out a candle of hope and the audience carried this with them as they left  the ballet.

The movements of the Alberta Ballet Company were beautifully & gracefully executed with great passion and commitment.  The dancers themselves,  the women dressed in leotards and the men in short shorts that revealed most of their sculpted bodies, were beautiful examples of the human form.  A few minimal costuming additions, designed, according to the program, by  'Pamela Kaye after Jean Grand-Maitre' appeared during some pieces that only enhanced the dancers' beauty and movement. 

However, during the Seattle performance, not every aspect of the dancing was perfect.  In many places, the choreography involved a group of dancers that were supposed to be performing synchronized movements.  The movements of the dancers in these sequences were often not coordinated and the dancers were out of synch with one another.  Maybe the Company was having an off night but these sequences seemed to indicate a need for more rehearsal to tighten up the synchronization.   In several numbers I failed to see much connection between the choreography and the words of the songs.  However, the images projected above the dancers on the round screen always enhanced and illustrated the various thematic elements.   In all fairness, I have to say that I am no expert on any kind of dance and certainly not an expert on ballet.  In fact this was the first professional ballet I had ever attended.  On the whole, the dancing was beautiful to watch and I do not pretend to have any special knowledge of the concept or execution of the choreography.  I don't suppose that a literal interpretation of the lyrics was the goal of every song.  But, for me, in some cases, the impressions created by the dancing just didn't seem to match up with the lyrics and the projected images.  Perhaps the dance, in these cases, was more about setting movement to the music than it was about interpreting the lyrics.

The ballet began with a dark stage and the sound of the young Joni Mitchell singing the title song, 'The Fiddle and the Drum',  as the figure of a single male dancer emerged into a single white light shining down directly above him.   A pattern of green lines was painted on his thorax that outlined the contours of his chest with a few horizontal lines that suggested ribs or a shield.  The light broadened as the rest of the company gradually appeared and formed a wedge behind this dancer.  The harsh overhead light created a sharp contrast of shadows and light on their bodies, accentuating the contours and lines.  This song can be interpreted as a Canadian pleading with the U.S. government during the Viet Nam War era (the song was recorded in 1969 during the height of the protests against the war) to exchange the drum of war for the fiddle of peace and transform the fighting fist into a handshake.   As the pure soprano voice sang,  several of the dancers  donned army helmets.  They slumped to the floor as Joni sang the final lines, 'When we ask you why, you raise your sticks and cry and we fall.  Oh my friend, we have all come to fear the beating of your drum'.  This opening piece succeeded in making a powerful statement and immediately drawing the audience into the ballet.  It was the only song that did not produce applause, due, in my opinion, to the sense of solemnity and awe that could be felt in the atmosphere it created in the theater. 

With the exception of the opener, the choice of songs was drawn exclusively from Joni's recordings made in the 1980s and beyond, including her latest release, 2007's 'Shine'  This is a period of Mitchell's work that is not well-known to the public at large.  The audience for the ballet seemed to be mostly  made up of an age demographic that would be familiar with Joni's early work from the 70s.  Whether they were familiar with this music or not, they did seem to know Joni Mitchell and were more than appreciative and supportive of her and of this work.  The songs must have made an impression on an audience that, I suspect, were mostly politically sympathetic with the overall themes.

Joni Mitchell's albums are all carefully sequenced so that one song seems to flow naturally into the next.  'The Fiddle and the Drum' is also strategically sequenced.  The music is fitted together to provide a suite of well-placed songs with the right amount of variation in tempo and mood.  Also, there are frequent segues between one lyrical theme into the next. 

'Sex Kills' was the second piece of the ballet.  The dancer's movements illustrated how advertisers use sexual images and innuendo to sell almost any product while various images flashed on the screen, some of them that seemed to relate to the AIDS epidemic that broke into full force during the 80s.  One image in particular that stuck in my mind was a placard that read 'We need experts, we don't need bigots'.  Other pictures were references to the rest of the many societal and ecological illnesses described in the lyrics. The end of the piece had various dancers gyrating in suggestive ways as the song ended with the words 'And the gas leaks and the oil spills.  And sex sells everything and sex kills.  Oh, sex kills.' 

From illness and turmoil, the tone moved to healing and redemption.  Mary Magdalene has sometimes been portrayed as a prostitute who is redeemed by Jesus and becomes his devoted follower.  Although this interpretation of Mary's character has been disputed as incorrect, she is often still viewed, in modern culture, as a fallen woman.  So it can be argued that she represents redemption and absolution from sexual 'transgressions' rather than condemnation and damnation.   The song that followed 'Sex Kills' was 'Passion Play (When All the Slaves are Free)'.  It began with a female dancer at the front of the left side of the stage who represented Mary Magdalene.  A Christ figure, distinguished from the rest of the company by wearing a filmy, loose, green, open shirt danced with Magdalene, gently caressing and holding her.  The tax collector Zacchaeus appeared as some of the dancers piled on top of one another to form the suggestion of a tree.  Zacchaeus  came down from his perch when Jesus told him to 'climb down, climb down from the middle of unrest'.  Jesus 'sees a stray in the wilderness' and Zaccheus 'sees how far I've wandered' as the dancers that portrayed the two characters performed a beautiful pas de deux,  ending when Jesus placed his hand on Zacchaeus' chest and pressed it gently as Zacchaeus spread his arms in a gesture of release and ecstasy, implying healing and perhaps redemption and freedom.   Another dancer was given the freeing touch of healing and yet another as the ironic lyric 'Who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?' was played.  The dancers did not portray the crucifixion but there was at least one image of it projected on the screen and the sense of the whole being played out in the glow of 'Exxon blue and radiation rose' seemed absent from the dance performance.  But it was a very beautiful and moving piece.   I think this was my favorite part of the ballet. 

In terms of choreography and staging, the following piece, 'The Three Great Stimulants' was one of the most impressive in the ballet.  Three dancers performed in the beginning and each illustrated one of the elements of the song's title, artifice, brutality and innocence.  Innocence was also accompanied by a line of female dancers crossing the back of the stage in chiffon-like voluminous skirts.  During the lyrical passage that speaks about how 'deep in the night, our appetites find us...while madmen sit up building bombs and bars, they'd like to slam free choice behind us',  a line of dancers crossed the back of the stage, marching in lock-step to the rhythm of the music and wearing helmets with one arm raised in imitation of the Nazi salute.  It was a great piece of staging.  The motif of three dancers or three couples dancing  at the forefront  with the rest of the company in the background appeared in several other pieces that made up the ballet.

The song 'Shine' was bathed in a warm, golden orange light that was a contrast to the overhead spots that had been used to produce the sharp visual  contrast in several other pieces. The dancers all wore sheer, loose-fitting open shirts in this piece that also lent it a soft quality.  A child, portrayed by the young dancer Clara Stripe, who had appeared in the beginning of 'Sex Kills' before being swept off the stage by two of the adult dancers, entered the stage at the beginning of this song and crouched behind a male dancer reclining on the floor with his back to the audience.  In this way she was mostly hidden except for her head as she peered over this man's body.  There was an image of a burning candle super-imposed over a body of water that was projected on the screen above the dancers.  I felt that the implication of both the candle and the child was one of hope barely keeping it's flame above the tide of the many images of human-made environmental deterioration,  greed and spiritual bankruptcy conveyed in the lyrics of the song.  But toward the end of the piece, the little girl rises and mixed in among the dark lyrics, sung with a quiet sadness and punctuated with the phrase 'let your little light shine' are glimmers of hope such as 'shine on a hopeful girl in a dreamy dress'.

The first act of the ballet ended with Joni Mitchell's 2002 orchestrated recording of her song 'For the Roses' that was originally recorded on the 1972 album of the same name.  The image of the moon filled the round screen at the beginning of the song, set against a black, star-studded sky.   This moon gradually shrank as the the song progressed.  At the end all that remained was the moon's reflection on rippling water as Joni sang the lyrics in her deeper, more mature voice 'and the moon swept down black water like an empty spotlight'.  The musical coda with Wayne Shorter's saxophone twittering and floating over all seemed to suggest a chilly autumn night up at Joni's retreat on the coast of British Columbia.  My guess is that the shrinking moon represented Joni Mitchell's gradual retreat from the  spotlight of the stage and the glare of public scrutiny. 

The second act opened with a bit of humor.  A male figure projecting a lazy, sloppy attitude is slouched on a couch in the center of the stage with a remote control in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other.  'The Re-Occurring Dream', Joni's ironic commentary on consumerism and advertising's assault on the senses,  played as the dancers pranced and posed around the seemingly oblivious man on the couch.  The screen overhead flashed buzz words from this aural collage's composed lyrics and incorporated sound bites.   It was the perfect setting and image for the song.  The final commentary at the end of this avalanche of excess was 'Who cares?'

This excess and apathy was immediately put into sharp contrast and evinced shame and disgrace with the portrayal of deprivation and human misery in the song 'Ethiopia that immediately followed it.  The orange glow that lit the song 'Shine' suggested a stifling, merciless heat in the song 'Ethiopia'.  The screen over the stage became filled with the burning orange disc of the sun.  Lighting and image combined to make a perfect setting for the description of 'walking sticks on burning plains, betrayed by politics, abandoned by the rains.'  Image, movement, words and music all combined to create a blistering, tragic impression of a massive human catastrophe.

The soldier from the beginning of the ballet returned in 'The Beat of Black Wings' as Killer Kyle, a man whose peace of mind and self esteem have been destroyed by his experience of war.  He was surrounded by dancers marching around him waving flags, representing the patriotic fervor that drives the  mentality of  war.  As the piece progressed, Killer Kyle was joined by other dancers wearing helmets.  They handed Killer Kyle one and as he accepted it and put it on, he was recruited into the madness that eventually betrayed and destroyed him.  Put into the context of the whole, this created a parallel to 'The Fiddle and the Drum', the song that opened the ballet.

Although the lyrics for 'Slouching Towards Bethlehem' were adapted from W. B. Yeats' poem 'The Second Coming', this is one of my favorite pieces of Joni Mitchell's work.  Her adaptation of and additions to the poem that make up the lyrics are exemplary and sonically the song is very powerful.  Unfortunately I was disappointed by this particular piece of the ballet.  I was only able to make an occasional connection between the choreography and the lyrics in this performance.  The images on the screen were appropriate to the themes of the song, but, overall, the choreography did not seem to match the tone of the piece.

'If I Had a Heart I'd Cry' came near the end of the ballet and the dancers once again donned the shirts that they wore during the performance of 'Shine'.  But the lighting for this song was not a warm glow.  Instead it created an effect that was similar to the images that Joni Mitchell had created for 'The Green Flag Song' exhibit, where she had used images she had taken from a dying flat screen TV.  The resulting pictures were compositions in jarring combinations of pink and green.  The lighting for 'If I Had a Heart I'd Cry' served to mirror this effect while pictures of the earth taken from space were projected on the screen.  The projected images showed different parts of the earth, that started and ended ominously at the bottom of the globe with Antarctica in the center,  presumably to suggest a shrinking polar ice cap caused by  global warming.  The lyrics of the song are almost unrelentingly dark and seem to sum up the costly repercussions produced by religious fanaticism, war, greed and disregard for the health of the planet.  However the little girl appeared once again during this piece and I think her presence is one of the keys to the spirit of this ballet.

There were also two celebratory songs in Shine.  The 2002 orchestral version of 'Woodstock' appeared toward the end of the first act, beginning with a tableau of soldiers at the back of the stage.  We were once again back in America's dark days during the Viet Nam miasma.  But in the midst of this time of ugly internal division and strife, a great release and celebration took place in upstate New York in the form of a legendary 3 day music festival that for many, correctly or erroneously, defined a generation.  In keeping with the lyrics of the song, a single Child of God appeared walking from the back toward the front of the stage and was eventually joined by the entire troupe.  We saw the bombers on the screen and we saw the movement of the dancer's suggest the butterflies that Mitchell had dreamed about those bombers turning into.  As the final 'And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden' was heard, bringing the piece back into the ecological theme of the ballet, an image of a bank of white clouds swelling and moving against a blue sky appeared on the screen.  This image appeared throughout the ballet.  In retrospect, it occurred to me that this image might have been a silent reference to what is maybe the most famous line of that most famous of Joni Mitchell's songs about contrast:  'I've looked at clouds from both sides now'  I may be all wet here.  Clouds do rain and snow on everyone, after all.  But they also form rows & flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air, which is a good description of what these images looked like.

The other song of celebration was the penultimate piece of the ballet, adapted from a Rudyard Kipling poem and titled 'If'.  At one point of this piece, the dancers lined up around the perimeter of the stage and clapped their hands to the rhythm of the music.  They moved and clapped and danced across the stage in joyous abandon as Joni sang encouraging words of how to persevere in the face of adversity.  Many people in the audience took up the clapping and kept it going long after the dancers had stopped clapping and moved into the next phase of the dance.  The song ended with Joni singing 'I know you'll be alright.  Cause you've got the fight, you've got the insight'.  At this point, the little girl appears from behind one of the dancers at the back of the stage.  She joins briefly joins in the dancing and then stops,  center stage, kneels and holds up her right hand, her fingers forming the peace sign.  This seemed to be the final message of the entire work, a message of faith in humanity and of hope.  It produced a standing ovation from the audience. 

But there was one more song to come.  As an encore or coda, the ballet ended with a rollicking rendition of Joni's other most famous song, 'Big Yellow Taxi'.  This was the zydeco-flavored version of the song that appeared on the cd 'Shine'.  The screen held a stationary image of  -  what else?  -   the rear fin and tail light of an old-fashioned big yellow taxi.  The entire company of dancers were spread all over the stage.  Periodically a woman, clutching a briefcase and wearing  a long, dark blue, business-like coat, hurried across the stage, checking her watch as she rushed past the dancers.  I was reminded of the line from 'Songs to Aging Children Come'  - 'people hurry by so quickly, don't they hear the melodies?'  At the end of the song, it was the the little girl dressed in the same manner as the woman and carrying a briefcase that began to rush across.  She was stopped by the dancing company in the middle of the stage.  Finally she shrugged, doffed the coat, dropped the briefcase and joined in the dance. 

There followed much clapping and cheering and a standing ovation.  The company took several bows and seemed as pleased with the audience as the audience was obviously pleased with them.

Joni Mitchell is a grandmother now, having found the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was a young woman.  The cd 'Shine' is dedicated to her grandson and granddaughter.  Ever since the release of that cd, I have speculated that the 'little light' in the title track is an indirect reference to Joni's grandchildren and by extension, to all children.  The generation of children that are growing up now  are perceiving a world fraught with strife and ecological wounds that might never heal if some kind of immediate action is not taken to begin a healing process.  Their 'little lights' are shining on all of this, seeing it and absorbing it.  Their futures are what is at stake and it may be up to their ingenuity to find solutions to the mammoth problems that their parents' generation have ignored, denied or failed to solve. 

So the little girl appears in various parts of 'The Fiddle and the Drum'.  She is both the greatest concern and the greatest hope at the center of the sometimes horrific  themes of the material that the ballet attempts to illustrate.  To quote from one of Joni Mitchell's finest compositions that does not appear in 'The Fiddle and the Drum', the song 'Hejira' - 'There is the hope and the hopelessness I've witnessed all these years'.   'The Fiddle and the Drum' left the Seattle audience with a message of hope.  But it also broadcast a strong warning.  The next generation may be our best hope, but the candles that shine their little lights may be drowned by hopelessness  if the process of change and repair is not begun now.

According to the program notes for the Seattle performance of 'The Fiddle and the Drum', Jean Grand-Maitre first approached Joni Mitchell about doing a ballet with a selection of her songs.  Joni showed him the images of war she had created for the 'Green Flag Song' exhibit and Jean wanted to include them in the ballet.  Joni suggested that she select different songs more in keeping with those images and the focus of the ballet shifted.  Joni comments in the program notes, 'With our situation for all earthlings - man and animals - becoming so dire, I felt that it was frivolous to present a lighter fare - like "fiddling while Rome burned".  Grand-Maitre showed great courage in accepting Joni's controversial concept and selection of relatively unknown material and of course, his choreography is a major component of the ballet.   He deserves a great amount of credit for the creation and production of this ballet.

But, while it is unfortunate that illness prevented her from being in Seattle, it was Joni Mitchell's night.  Although the songs were played a little louder than might have been necessary, they were the raison d'etre for 'The Fiddle and the Drum' and they were the elements that drove it.  A preview article in the Seattle Times by Misha Berson said that Mitchell and Grand-Maitre are planning on doing two more pieces together.  A friend that accompanied me to the performance felt that 'The Fiddle and the Drum' would have been better if different styles of dance had been incorporated into it.  As for myself, I have no quibble with the dance being all ballet for 'The Fiddle and the Drum'.  But I do think it would be interesting to see what could be done with other forms of dance applied to Joni Mitchell's music.  Given the depth of Joni Mitchell's catalogue, her artistic vision and Jean Grand-Maitre's talent and willingness to take chances, the possibilities for future multi-media collaborations are numerous and could be even more exciting than 'The Fiddle and the Drum' was.  But the pair have set a high standard with this powerful ballet and it will be difficult for them to top themselves.   Difficult, but not impossible.

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Added to Library on March 2, 2010. (8010)


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