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DVD Review: Joni Mitchell's The Fiddle and the Drum Print-ready version

by Ken Shane
February 24, 2009

I don't think it's boastful to say that I know a little bit about music. I'm old, so I've been playing and listening to it for many years. In that context, I think I know a few things about Joni Mitchell. She's a founding member of what I call my pantheon: a group of artists from various disciplines who have, in my opinion, reached the mountaintop. The membership includes the likes of Pablo Picasso, Sam Shepard, Miles Davis, and Francis Ford Coppola. It's a tough club to get into.

On the other hand, I don't know a damn thing about ballet. I have very little interest in classical ballet, though I can tolerate modern dance. I once saw a performance by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, and that was memorable, but that's where my experience ends. So faced with a DVD that combines the music of Joni Mitchell and the choreography of Jean Grand-Maitre and his Alberta Ballet, I had to call in the cavalry. Luckily, I knew just who to call.

Nicole Vanasse played semi-pro ballet. She never made it to the bigs, but she has an ongoing love of the form and still insists she coulda been a contender. So we made a deal  I'd handle the music, and she could weigh in on the dancing.

The production, called The Fiddle and the Drum (Koch Vision), is a compelling blend of Mitchell's music, represented here by ten songs, including three from her most recent album, Shine; a video installation she created called Green Flag Song, which is projected on a large canvas screen during the ballet; and the dance performance itself. The package comes with an eight-page booklet with liner notes by Mitchell, and the DVD extras include an isolated look at the Green Flag Song artwork as well as interviews with Mitchell, Grand-Maitre, and several of the company's dancers.

The themes of the work are humankind's capacity for love and hate, and its ability to create and destroy. Here's what Nikki had to say: "I loved the music, the message and the stage production. I always thought it was hard to choreograph ballet to contemporary music, but Jean Grande-Maitre did a phenomenal job.

"Joni Mitchell should be applauded for this work. Her message comes across unmistakably and the overall feel of the entire production is organic. How people, moving together, sort of keep the world turning. During the various pas de deux, I liked the way the dancers moved together, synchronized, and also on their own. It demonstrated how the movements of one depended on the movements of the other. That's what made it feel so organic. The simplicity of the set and costumes was perfect because you could really focus on the dance, and the emotions that came with Joni's music translated perfectly to the stage. Sometimes sets and costumes can be so elaborate that people get lost in the beauty of the visual.

"The other thing I found interesting was that from the first number, I thought that this was a perfect production to show to someone who loves Joni's music so that they may be exposed to ballet, and a perfect production to show someone who loves ballet but may be unaware of Joni's music."

Thanks, Nikki.

It saddens me that many people feel Mitchell is so far past her peak that she's no longer relevant. The truth is she continues to create beautiful and important art in several mediums. Her new music is compelling, and her older work stands up very well to the passage of time. One listen to the songs from Shine  "If I Had a Heart," for example  confirms the quality of her new work, and "Sex Kills," from 1994's Turbulent Indigo, gives a glimpse of her middle-period work that still resonates. The fact that Mitchell was able to tie together music from various phases of her career and form a coherent statement in The Fiddle and the Drum about a world in chaos demonstrates the hold her music has on the universal themes that define life as we know it.

As I said at the outset, I'm not a lover of ballet. This production allowed me to experience dance in a hospitable environment, i.e. one that's populated by Joni Mitchell's music, and the interviews on the DVD gave me an insight into the artistic mind at work, a subject I've always found fascinating.

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Added to Library on February 25, 2009. (6540)


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coralcadman on

Not sure I can trust your "pantheon" Ken, in that you don't appear to have included Laura Nyro, one of the few artist Joni Mitchell credits with inspiring her as a songwriter and innovator. Maybe just an oversight? Miles Davis was asked to contribute to a Nyro production way back when, and after her heard the music, he said "I have nothing to add. She has already said it all."