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A Conversation with Jean Grand-Maitre Print-ready version

by Mark Scott
December 1, 2012

Jean Grand-Maitre is the Artistic Director for the Alberta Ballet. Jean choreographed a set of Joni Mitchell's recordings that became 'The Fiddle and the Drum', a ballet that premiered in 2007. Jean worked in close collaboration with Joni on the production of 'The Fiddle and the Drum'. He is a great admirer of Joni and of her music. Jean recently agreed to participate in an email interview for and was very generous with his answers. He described how he and Joni collaborated to create 'The Fiddle and the Drum', wrote a bit about the 'Both Sides Now' piece from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics opening ceremony, confirmed that Joni does not own a computer and that she has only one telephone in her house with no answering service or voicemail. Jean also shared some news about a new project he is working on with Joni that her followers will be very excited to read. I believe 'The Fiddle and the Drum' was the first of your productions to be built on the work of a 'pop' music artist. What led you to choose Joni Mitchell's music for the project?

Jean Grand-Maitre: In 2007 Alberta Ballet was celebrating its 40th birthday. We wanted to create an event that would capture the attention of the people and the media. We were thinking of Beethoven's 9th with a huge orchestra and chorus and other such concepts. One of Canada's leading dance critics and a friend, Micheal Crabb, suggested Alberta born Joni Mitchell. He also suggested she may want to participate being an accomplished visual artist as well - she might even be interested in creating a set. It seemed a long shot. Cathy Clarke at the Feldman Agency suggested I send in a project proposal and she was interested. I did not know that many of her friends were ex-dancers and Broadway gypsies and that she loved to dance (in Saskatoon she organised Wednesday evening dances because she could not wait for the weekend to hit the dance floor). And so what interested her was that her lyrics, her music and her visual art all came together in one creation uniting with dance, another art form she loves.

Your original concept was to create a ballet based on Joni's life. When you met with her at her home in Los Angeles, she suggested a shift in the concept for the ballet. The nature of the material she was interested in presenting points up the darker side of humanity and most of the music that was chosen is not from the best loved or most well known period of her career. What made you take the risky decision to go with Joni's idea for a 'war ballet' as she referred to it?

My original idea was a semi-biographical ballet inspired by her life and choreographed to songs selected from her earliest recordings to her latest but mostly concentrating on her earlier years. She believed this to be an uninteresting subject matter when the world's environmental crisis was deepening and the US had invaded Iraq. Her idea was better: Incorporating her latest art work, which spoke of environmental disasters, war and other contemporary symbols of creation and destruction - into the creative process which would serve as background projections to her songs (a circular video installation which she personally edited in LA for several months with the help of Robert Ivison - You can see it on the Special Features of the ballet's DVD on sale on the web). She had recently created more than 60 art pieces that eloquently investigated our obsession with destruction. She also believes that her compositions and recordings from the 80's and 90's - many of which deal with pollution, global warming, social decay, political corruption, war and basic contemporary human indecencies - were largely suppressed and reviewed harshly. She wanted the "play", as she calls the ballet, to bring all this forgotten work together in one performance art statement. She was so pleased because the audience ended up really loving these songs which were so easily dismissed when they were originally published. With the support of the theatre and the dance, these difficult and challenging songs suddenly took on another dimension and the audience was thus able to digest them and understand their reason for existing. Creating a ballet about environmental neglect and war was not an easy pill to swallow but with the help of her extraordinary lyrics, her many staging suggestions and those poignant melodies she helped see how it could be done.

Joni Mitchell has had artistic control over her recordings since she first signed a recording contract in 1968. From what I have read, Joni had a great deal of input in the design and artistic direction of 'The Fiddle and the Drum'. How much of her influence was in the final production of the ballet and how would you describe her as a collaborator?

She suggested many songs, we both decided on the final selection together. She then sequenced them in a way she believed offered our "play" a coherent structure thematically and musically. She then created the video installation - which was projected unto 3 large panels (in the original production we had two rectangular screens, one on stage right and another stage left and finally another circular one center stage - now we only use the circular screen which hangs above the dancers on stage). When we were one week away from the premiere she came to attend final studio rehearsals making a few suggestions for choreographic changes that made the dance capture more meaningfully the intent of certain important lyrics; she wanted some lyrics to be enhanced through the dancers bodies. She shared intimate ideas about the lyrics and the musical structure with us. She then attended the premiere, took a bow with us on stage out of solidarity with the dancers. Finally she edited for 4 months the film of the ballet in a Calgary editing studio. Her assistant editor said her obsession with details was remarkable and she was one of the few editors he ever met who understood how to do this work with such refinement. It was an organic, enjoyable and wonderful experience for all. She is highly self-critical, she questions her collaborators on esthetic decisions and listens to opinions. She gave enormous freedom to the lighting designer, the costume designer and to all other collaborators. It was easy and rich and unforgettable.

I was very struck by the way the lighting designs enhanced the songs in 'The Fiddle and the Drum'. How closely did you work with Pierre Lovoie on the lighting concepts? Did Joni have any input on this aspect of the production?

We had no money for costumes, it was a super low budget production by any standard. Since her art works - which were projected throughout the ballet - were fundamentally using the color green, she suggested we solve the low costume budget by body painting the dancers with the same colors featured in her art work - which made them look like they had literally walked out of her paintings and on stage. The effect was stunning, cheap and brilliant. We hired a make up artist to body paint the dancers with the colors he found in her art work. And so Joni created the script, the soundtrack, the set, she detailed all staging elements for each song (Beat of Black Wings is about a soldier - Passion Play is about Mary Magdalene and the prophet and Zacharias - Sex Kills would be an overture, we needed green flags as the "flags of the earth" and Slouching Towards Bethlehem was from a Yeats poem - and so on) and her keen sense of coloring inspired the costuming and finally the lighting which had to bring all the scenic elements together in symbiotic fusion. I have never seen a ballet which was created with the color palette she chose for this production. It was utterly original.

How much of the dance in 'The Fiddle and the Drum' would you say was in the nature of dramatic illustration of the words and themes of the songs?

We did not want to "Mickey Mouse" the songs' lyrics in the choreography. I explained to her that if she was singing about a man "picking up a newspaper" we did not have to see that reproduced on stage literally for the production would quickly become redundant. She agreed. Although some themes had to be exploited in a theatrical way with some of the characters coming to life (Passion Play, Beat of Black Wings, The Three Great Stimulants and so on) other songs were expressed in a more abstract way through the dancers' movements. For example For The Roses was a more melancholic and romantic song which inspired the choreography in a purely abstract way through the deeply spiritual tonality of the composition. Joni gave me great advice for each song and we spoke for hours about all of them. She suggested I try to capture the groove behind the voice. This was fantastic advice. Sometimes I imagined her songs to be classical compositions and her voice became the string section and the other instruments were the percussions, wind and other sections of an orchestra. 90% of all staging concepts which evolved on stage came from her suggestions.

How much of the dance would you describe as more abstract, oriented to the rhythms and nuances of the music? Can you give specific examples?

Songs which were choreographed more abstractly: For The Roses - Sex Kills - Shine - Woodstock - Slouching Towards Bethlehem - If - If I Had a Heart I'd Cry. Songs that were choreographed more literally: The Fiddle and the Drum - Passion Play - the Three Great Stimulants - The Re-Occuring Dream - Ethiopia - Big Yellow Taxi

The ballet also offered audiences the world premiere of 3 new songs by Joni: If - If I Had a Heart I'd Cry and Shine (at the world premiere performance these 3 songs were not even fully mixed yet - a later version of the ballet's soundtrack integrated her final fully mixed versions - which were released with her Shine album whose cover and inside notes featured photos the dancers of the ballet).

Was Joni solely responsible for the selection and sequencing of the images projected on 'the Cyclops', the large round screen above the center of the stage?

Yes she edited this film for months with the help of Canadian editor Robert Ivision in LA.

Did the two of you consult on the selection and sequencing of the songs for 'The Fiddle and the Drum'?

From the beginning to the end; it was a perfectly enjoyable and cooperative effort.

I was also very much drawn into the magic that your choreography helped create for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics opening and closing ceremonies. Did you choreograph the aerial ballet performed to Joni's orchestrated version of 'Both Sides Now'? If so, can you briefly describe what the particular challenges were of choreographing an aerial dance?

I only assisted with this scene but strongly suggested this song should be used. David Atkins directed and conceived this beautiful tableau. We tried to get Joni to be there but she refused to lip-sync and that decision, in the end, was a very good one. It was a very difficult to create as we depended completely on technology to fly the boy numerous times across this massive stadium and he had to land on a precise note in order for the total theatrical effect to become emotionally stirring. David wanted to give the audience a sense of the infinite vastness of the Canadian prairies where Joni was born. A young prairie boy would run and suddenly begin to fly to her song Both Sides Now. He would then dance with the immense open fields of grass lands and wheat that symbolize this part of Canada.

Word has it that you are in collaboration with Joni once again on a new work. Can you give us a hint as to what we might expect from this new production? Will the tone of the piece be lighter than 'The Fiddle and the Drum'?

Yes much lighter, well as light as Joni gets anyhow. As she said: "A song without that moment of clarity is just complaining". In fact Joni has four concepts going: One tentatively called The Gallery which would bring back the many characters from her songbook - Another would be a Love ballet featuring her songs about relationships - Another could be a ballet inspired by her famous Blue album and finally another idea is a ballet inspired by her Songs to Prairie Girl album of the same name. We are meeting in LA in January to make a final decision. She sad we have done our War ballet and now we should go on to a new theme. The ballet will premiere in May 2014 in Calgary during her 70th year and it will be a celebration of her entire life's work. Actually there will be a huge amount of Joni Mitchell celebrations next year in Canada with a massive gala in Toronto - which may be broadcast on CBC television and radio, this ballet will also premiere which she will attend of course and I also heard a movie is now being discussed with Taylor Swift cast in her role. Mmmmmm... I wonder...

Joni has suffered from severe health issues in recent years. Reports from her appearance this fall at the Ruby Lake Resort in British Columbia seem to indicate that she was in very good spirits. To the best of your knowledge, is Joni enjoying better health now?

Much better physically and emotionally. I have never seen her this positive and funny and relaxed and she is inspired and writing again.

Since you are communicating with Joni so much about this new work, is it safe to say she is taking an active role in its creation?

Absolutely and she is thinking of creating a new video installation and writting new songs as well for this ballet as well.

Will the dancing in the new production be strictly ballet or will there be elements of other types of dance?

All types of dance from neo-classical ballet to contemporary and street dance.

Will the music once again be Joni's original recordings?


'The Fiddle and the Drum' was very minimalist in production. A review I read of your 'Love Lies Bleeding' production that was based on the music and life of Elton John described an elaborately produced, theatrical work. One interview I read with you and Joni suggested that some financial supporters dropped out when the thematic nature of 'The Fiddle and the Drum' changed course. Did funding for 'The Fiddle and the Drum' necessitate a more minimalist approach? Or was it the nature of the music and the artist? Will the new project be more elaborate in terms of settings, costumes, etc?

Good question. The ballet was on a tight budget because the Alberta Ballet is not exactly swimming in grants like our colleagues out east. Some of our usual sponsors from the oil and gas industry did not come forward as they did before - possibly worried by the thematic nature of this creation - but some did support it - this to their credit. Ironically for this new creation I have offered Joni a budget which is 7 times greater than the budget we had for the Fiddle and the Drum- but she refused stating that she does not want to go high tech but prefers that the dancers remain the center of attention. She wants to keep it simple and focused.

Do you have dates set for the new production and if so, when will the piece be performed?

The World Premiere is in early May 2014 in Calgary's Jubilee Auditorium where our last ballet premiered.

Will the new production tour and will there be bookings in the U.S.?

I hope so, no bookings yet - it has not even been officially announced.

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Added to Library on December 1, 2012. (19839)


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Tinar on

I am thrilled to hear of ongoing ballet work. I am very grateful she has come through health issues. I absolutely agree the choice of Taylor Swift playing JOni absolutely makes me cringe. I cannot imagine this is okay with JM. I keep hearing little tidbits that this production is going forward. YIKES! I both hate and love the idea that Joni has no computer or modern msg machine etc. HA! Good for her. I cannot imagine what it is like to shield your privacy when you are a famous artist. I look forward to any and all updates about her painting. What painters and artists is she especially impressed with etc. As much I want to join in on.

timjim22001 on

Sorry to be pedantic, but in May 2014 JM will be in her *71st* year (her 70th birthday being in November 2013).
Great news that she is healthy and happy - long may it last.

sweet.bird on

WOW! all of this wonderful news!! i'm SO VERY EXCITED that she's at her best; happiest, relaxed, very well in health. i'm also very very much excited that she's back to her creative self, and above all else... BEING INSPIRED and WRITING AGAIN!


fbbluhm on

An excellent article, along with the always great news that Joni remains in the creative process. We're always happy to hear of any new project of Joni's.

On another note: I'm afraid that I, too, share what appeared to be (in the Article) Jean Grand-Maitre's concern over Taylor swift being approached to (I presume) to play Joni in a movie roll. From listening to her live at the CMA Awards a few years back, it is obvious she can't carry a tune. While she was performing with her idol, Stevie Nicks, It was later noted in a review of the show that that Nicks and her backup singers tried to do everything they could to help her stay in key. I'm sorry, I don't mean to take away from a great article full of good news, but they're talking about doing a movie about Joni. And anything that involves Joni is sacred ground to a lot of us. Surely the producers can find a great talent from Canada.