Jean Grand-Maitre knew Alberta Ballet had received a significant boost in profile when paparazzi showed up at a rehearsal in Calgary.
Well, paparazzo anyway. There was only one. Nonetheless, it was the first, and presumably only, time this has happened at an Alberta Ballet rehearsal.
It was in 2007 and the artistic director of Alberta Ballet, his company and singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell were putting the final touches on The Fiddle & the Drum, the first in a series of portrait ballets the company would end up creating.
The collaboration had garnered international press, something Grand-Maitre wasn't expecting. The BBC dropped by to do a documentary, focusing on Mitchell's return to the spotlight after semi-retirement. It helped that she was in fine fighting form, wearing her peace beads and raging against environmental ruin and the war in Iraq. These weighty concerns were reflected in her new paintings and her first new songs since 1998, which would appear later that year on an acclaimed album called Shine. They were also reflected in this new dance piece being developed in Calgary by Grand-Maitre with Mitchell providing the music, libretto and set design. It proved irresistible to the international press.
The New York Times dedicated the front page of its iconic Sunday arts and leisure section to the ballet. The Guardian and others also did pieces.
It was during final dress rehearsals that the uninvited photographer showed up.
"We had to kick him out to start our dress rehearsal, because Joni Mitchell was back," says Grand-Maître. "It was an incredible moment in time. We realized how much attention we were getting."
The Fiddle & The Drum will return to its home base from May 1-4 at the Jubilee Auditorium. After a dozen years, the world has changed. Mitchell suffered a devastating brain aneurysm in 2015 and has made very few public appearances since. Concerns about environmental damage and international conflict have become even more urgent since they were addressed in the ballet and Mitchell's songs in 2007.
But on the sunnier side, Alberta Ballet has used Fiddle & the Drum as a template for nearly half-a-dozen subsequent portrait ballets, teaming up with k.d.lang, Elton John, Gordon Lightfoot, The Tragically Hip and Sarah McLachlan for new works. Grand-Maître is currently in talks with the estate of David Bowie for a new piece based on the late artist's music, which he hopes to debut in 2022.
"All of them were participants and collaborators in helping me understand their music," says Grand-Maître. "Joni was the one who taught me everything. She was my mentor."
With the exception of 2018's All of Us, which set an anti-fascist dystopian tale against the songs of the Tragically Hip, the portrait ballets since Fiddle & the Drum have contained autobiographical elements of its feature artists. This was Grand-Maître's initial vision for the Mitchell ballet as well. In 2007, the company was set to celebrate its 40th year and the choreographer, who has been artistic director since 2002, wanted to create something big to mark the occasion.
"We were looking for ways to do something spectacular that would really capture the attention of the media and the community and really put Alberta Ballet on the map in a big way," Grand-Maître says. "I was thinking of doing Beethoven's 9th Symphony, or something big and majestic with a chorus. A friend of mine in Toronto, a dance critic, suggested Joni Mitchell because she was actually born in Fort Macleod and grew up in Saskatoon. He said she's a painter so she might design the sets. She might like to work on the creation and I thought it was such a long shot. It was an impossible dream."
But he had nothing to lose and wrote her agent a letter. Within two weeks, Grand-Maître was sitting face-to-face with the singer-songwriter at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. The two spent six hours on a terrace discussing life and "everything imaginable." They met again in Los Angeles a little while later, which was when the choreographer outlined what he had in mind for a piece. He had been working on it for six months and it featured a story that followed the broad outlines of Mitchell's life.
She said she wasn't interested, but she had a better idea. Initially, Grand-Maître was crestfallen. But she took him to her Beverley Hills home to play him new songs on piano and guitar and show him her new paintings, most of which dealt with heavy issues of war and the environment. Eventually he saw the light: "Joni Mitchell doesn't have bad ideas."
"For her, it was useless to do a nice, pretty little ballet about Joni Mitchell's life when the world is in such shambles," he says.
Incorporating hip-hop and urban dance movements into a contemporary ballet, the initial 45-minute production was performed by 27 dancers beneath a video installation by Mitchell. Grand-Maître and the ballet expanded the work in 2009, adding new songs. The Fiddle & The Drum became the focus of a documentary that Mitchell oversaw, which screened in New York City and has since developed a cult following around the world. In the past decade, the ballet has been performed in Toronto, Vancouver and California.
"Most importantly, because we started with Joni, it opened the doors for all these other singers," Grand-Maître says. "I think a lot of these exciting collaborations would not have been possible if our first muse hadn't been Joni."
The portrait ballets have all been popular, helping the company find a new audience while carving out a niche that is unique in the world. So it's hardly surprising that Grand-Maître wants them to continue. He says Alberta Ballet is "95 per cent confirmed to work with the David Bowie estate."
"We are getting very close, because of Joni Mitchell," he says. "I still have to sign on the dotted line. We have a soundtrack selected, a story. Everything has been approved."
Grand-Maître has made a few tweaks to Fiddle & The Drum, all of it involving the choreography and not anything that Mitchell contributed. A few weeks ago he spoke to the singer, who is too weak to travel.
"Joni wanted to make a ballet about what's going on with this planet and how we are fighting all these wars and the real war should be to save the planet," Grand-Maître says. "I think 10 years later, when we're going to hear all these songs again, it's not in the future, it's in the present. It sends a chill sometimes up my spine when we are rehearsing it because I realize when she was telling me about seas evaporating and things like that I would say 'Our grandchildren will see that.' But no, it's happened now.
"She never hung up her beads from the '60s like a lot of them did. And I think she is in a place now that when we listen to these words they won't be prophecies anymore. What she wanted most from this ballet is to inspire people to act. It was to portray humanity at its most beautiful, its most creative, but also at its most destructive."
The Fiddle & The Drum will be performed May 1-4 at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary and May 9-11 at the Northern Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton.
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