Saturday, November 12, 2011

Love Lies Bleeding: A Pop Ballet That Really Pops

The artists of Alberta Ballet rock out to "Benny and the Jets" in Love Lies Bleeding

Jean Grand-Maître took the stage at Toronto’s Sony Centre on Tuesday night, just moments before Alberta Ballet would perform the area premiere of his full-length Love Lies Bleeding, set to and directly inspired by the music of Elton John. Microphone in hand, Grand-Maître genially asked the capacity crowd how many had come to the ballet for the first time. A roar rippled through the auditorium and the Canadian choreographer smiled. It was a sign that his mandate of creating pop ballets for the Calgary-based company since becoming director in 2002 was indeed working: bums in seats, but more importantly, bums attached to people who might not otherwise be caught dead watching men in jock straps pointing their toes in an undulating sea of ballerinas. But as if wanting to quell any lingering reservations, Grand-Maître told the audience not to worry: “This is not really a ballet,” he continued. “It’s more like a rock concert. So sit back, relax and unleash your inner pop star.”

"Rocket Man": Yukichi Hattori, Company Artists
For the next two hours that is pretty much what happened. The crowd screamed, it sang, it clapped along; some in the house could be seen even dancing in their seats. At the end, it rose en masse to give the ballet an instantaneous standing ovation on top of prolonged applause. To ballet purists it was a somewhat different story. The choreography is more borrowed than original: Bob Fosse meets the cross-dressing Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, meaning lots of crotch thrusts and drag queens galore. Such details have entertainment value, but don’t necessarily advance the art form. Still, there was plenty to like, even admire. It is one of the few ballets to foreground men in ballet as opposed to women and for that is to be applauded as something rare indeed. It also has at its centre an aerial number, choreographed by Adrian Young, which literally sets the dancers flying, a wonder to behold. But the ballet scales heights in other ways: Love Lies Bleeding is the Alberta Ballet’s Tommy, a reference to the ballet inspired by The Who’s rock-opera of the same name created for Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in 1970 by resident choreographer by Fernand Nault, a work that first put Canadian ballet on the international map. So while not a new invention, Love Lies Bleeding is ballet for the masses whose popularity may bode well for the future of the art itself, enticing even more bums down the line to wiggle in their seats.

The Elton John ballet, created last year, is only one in a growing series of works made by Grand-Maître in collaboration with living pop stars. Others include The Fiddle and the Drum (2007), set to the music of Joni Mitchell, and Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (2011) set to the music of Sarah McLachlan. A native of Hull, Que., who trained at Toronto’s York University and L’École Supérieur de Dance du Québec before becoming a dancer with Ballet British Columbia and Theatre Ballet of Canada, Grand-Maître is presently in negotiations with k.d.lang for a future ballet after she personally expressed interest in working with Alberta Ballet based in large part of the box-office success of these other works. “You could say that k.d. lang’s management really wants to work with us, but it’s not been finalized yet,” said Grand-Maître in a brief interview following Tuesday’s show by way of confirming the rumour that a new pop ballet is in the works. (You are reading it here first!)

That rock stars are coming to him (Elton John, Grand-Maître says, agreed to do the ballet after Joni Mitchell told him what an enriching experience it had been for her working with Alberta Ballet) is a sign that not only is he onto something that others want to share, but he's also turning a regional ballet company like Alberta Ballet into a cause celebre. It can also be argued that he and they are producing the most innovative and original ballet work in Canada right now. Grand-Maître makes that easy by augmenting his choice of popular music with an assemblage of true theatrical talent.

Artistic Director Jean Grand-Maître in rehearsal

The dancing of the 31-member company lead by the hyper-plastic, kinetically-driven, hugely crowd-pleasing Tokyo-born Yukichi Hattori, was as visceral as the rock music at the core. Martine Bertrand’s flamboyant costumes, in addition to Guillaume Lord’s inventive set design and Pierre Lavoie’s candle-in-the-wind lighting, succeeded in raising the ballet to the heights of pop spectacular. The music, of course, was toe-tappingly wonderful; a platform shoes-and-velvet nostalgia trip for those of us who lived through Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and other chart-topping records authored by the outrageously bespectacled British pop pianist the first time they made the glitter rounds in the 1970s.

Overall, the ballet very skillfully captured the spirit of that original era, showing it as existing behind clouds of both gold dust (a by-product of the early 1970s glam rock movement) and fairy dust (the white powder called cocaine). It was also a time shaped by disturbing political and social events, for instance the ongoing Vietnam War and the impeachment of U.S. President Nixon, images of which form part of the fantastically kaleidoscopic video montage created for the ballet by New York’s Adam Larsen running parallel to the main danced action on stage. The projections also anchor the ballet as existing somewhere in time between the 1968 slaying of civil rights leader Martin Luther King and the 1980 slaying of Beatle John Lennon, fragmented images of which are seen through a large ornate picture frame hanging symbolically askew on the rear curtain.

Yukichi Hattori and Kelley McKinlay
The ballet also re-establishes the singular talents of Bernie Taupin – the Brown Dirt Cowboy to Elton John’s Captain Fantastic – who has been Sir Elton’s frequent collaborator since 1967. These days, Taupin’s name tends to get lost behind the legend that has since grown around his on-again, off-again partner. Loves Lies Bleeding goes far in resurrecting his own special genius as a rock lyricist by amplifying the gentle, trippy, emotionally tinged hippie sensibility at the heart of his songs, 13 of which are featured here, from “Benny and the Jets” to “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” among other Top 40 hits, including “Rocket Man” and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” Taupin's story-telling lyrics help shape and lend emotional resonance to the ballet's narrative in which an Elton John stand-in figure named Elton Fan serves as the main character.

Born 1947 in England, the rock artiste is presented early on as a child prodigy who rises fast to the upper echelons of pop royalty (he was knighted in 1998 by Elizabeth II) only to be plagued by inner demons spurring him on into cocaine addiction and other wildly abusive behaviours. These dark storms of the soul (represented in the ballet in the form of whip-carrying thugs who strongly resemble the droogs in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange), are ultimately quelled by the redeeming power presence of true love as depicted by a homosexual liaison as romantic as anything seen in a 19th century ballet; the men, in fact, wear Romantic shirts that are long, white and flowing: a reference, perhaps, to the ballet blanc of yesteryear.

None of this is lost on the audience which seemed, instinctively, to get it: when the lovers kiss, the house cheered. Love was not bleeding as much as newly alive in the hearts of those watching it blossom on stage. Its rock star trappings aside, Love Lies Bleeding is in essence an old-fashioned morality tale, a battle between good and evil, which appears to be a large part of its contemporary appeal. Audiences don’t have to wade through a forest of spectral ballerinas to discover that the theme espoused by the ballet is universal: love conquers all, a message as direct as rock and roll, itself. It continues at the Sony Centre until tonight. It will be remounted in several other cities in the coming months.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. She is also the author of the national best-selling memoir, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre). Visit her website for more information,

No comments:

Post a Comment