Sometimes it pays dividends to remount the work of a celebrated Canadian artist if only to appreciate her creative wisdom all the more. A decade has passed since Alberta Ballet presented Joni Mitchell's and Jean Grand-Maître's antiwar and environmentally themed The Fiddle and the Drum and, since then, a lot of proverbial water has flowed under the bridge.
Many of Joni Mitchell's poetic statements from decades past echo as prophetic in this splendid exposition of her songs, many of which have become required learning for serious musicians everywhere.
Mitchell's message formed a compelling abstract storyline Wednesday night, the perfect backdrop for a difficult ensemble ballet of 30 dancers, complete with Mitchell's visual art projected onto a suspended orb above the stage like an alien observer's spaceship window-seat view of an inhabited planet Earth slowly killing itself.
The Fiddle and the Drum was also Grand-Maître's first portrait ballet, and in many ways, it is my favourite among a crowded field (close by is The Tragically Hip ballet All of Us and Grand-Maître's underperformed Class Acts). Fiddle has aged very well and gives us more to think about for a lot of reasons.
Fiddle is not like the others in the genre. Mostly, the songs serve as useful division for changing the choreographic direction with each of Mitchell's songs, closely matched in metaphorical movement to the poetic lines. By and large, Fiddle projects best as a pensive mood piece that maintains its audience in a continuous reflective space. One certainly can hear the songs as distinct entities, but better is to listen to them as they transition smoothly one into the other as a larger creative megaproject. The superb dancing helped with this artistic ethos in mind.
The most intriguing of the 14 tracks we heard were Mitchell's '80s-era songs, when she broke new artistic and musical territory. It's difficult to convey how much I love these songs and how much they smash the need for genre-naming (folk, rock, jazz, funk etc.), but the essential thrust of the music is its captivating escape from conventional lyricism and a fresh, constant rhythmic purpose underlying original narration in each piece.
Grand-Maître's task was to practically invent a movement vocabulary to match Mitchell's unconventional and highly thoughtful musical creativity. The result was often a blend of rhythmically obsessive choreography consisting of detailed footwork on every count, such as the brutally difficult The Three Great Stimulants (Alan Ma, Kuu Sakuragi, Jennifer Gibson) punctuated with an ironic movement lyricism that would scarcely last more than a few four-counts throughout most of the individual pieces (Shine, Passion Play, The Beat of Black Wings).
The final impression is one of continuous movement flow from song to song and an endless surfeit of movement variety, occasionally in militaristic unisons but more often in textured ensemble work. It all works well, stimulates thought, and impresses in its straightforward esthetic beauty.
Mitchell has always narrated her songs in a refreshingly understated manner, allowing the lyrics to speak for themselves without artificially generated angst. Grand-Maitre's choreography is the same, and it's frankly a relief.
In The Beat of Black Wings, one of my favourites, the richly chorded ostinato in three-step backs a gentle ballad about a soldier named Killer Kyle and his gradual self-destruction by what we now recognize as PTSD. While the dancing seemed overtly interested in portraying the inner horrors of Kyle's fractured psyche through jagged shapes and memories of crawling through trenches (Kelley McKinlay, Garret Groat, John Canfield), it was the discontinuity of his traumatic soldiering unfolding against the backdrop of a marching corps of paraded green Earth flags that struck home most. The juxtaposition was at once striking and hypnotic, tragic and poetic. The trio of McKinlay, Groat and Canfield provided the ballet's biggest highlight.
But The Three Great Stimulants was perhaps the most impressive at synthesizing understated lyricism with murderously difficult footwork. Whether as an antiwar statement or as a piece of pure dance, the work excelled with its treacherous detail, its constant emphasis of changes on every count (frankly I don't know how they do it), and its surfeit of gesture and pure micro-movement muscularity.
Also lovely were the multiple partnered pieces such as Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Mitchell's folk-lyrical music well set to Joan Didion's near-apocalyptic poetry. The Beat of Black Wings and If I had A Heart I'd Cry completed the evening's best set of three pieces, before finally giving way to Michell's supreme setting of Rudyard Kipling's If, a feel-good, life-affirming rave. Big Yellow Taxi was the perfect encore.
Amid threats of conflict and collapse, Mitchell sings it all with subtlest acumen, but if we listen closely, her nuanced musical language still provides some hope for a reasoned path forward, providing we can translate her danced musical messages into our own meaningful activism. Then we might be able to exchange the Drum for the Fiddle again.
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