Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Essence and Process: Jean Grand-Maître's Balletlujah!

Canadian chanteuse k.d. lang wonders out loud in Balletlujah!, a new film documenting her 2013 collaboration with the Alberta Ballet, why director Grant Harvey failed to include her way of dancing as part of the on-screen choreography. She asks the question impishly, saying she’s going to have words with him about it, and it’s clear that she’s only joking. Yet she has a point. Her way of dancing is perhaps the only thing missing from a prime time movie that bravely, and with great sensitivity, excavates almost everything else about her, her lesbianism and Buddhism included. Taking as its title the name Alberta Ballet artistic director and choreographer, Jean Grand-Maître, gave to the k.d.lang inspired production he debuted on a Calgary stage two years ago, Balletlujah! is a dance film as biography with an appeal as big as an Albertan sky.

If lang was previously behind-the-scenes in the making of the ballet inspired by her life and music, in Balletlujah! she is front and centre. Frequently addressing the camera, she speaks in a relaxed and direct manner about her journey through art, addressing love and acceptance, themes which loom large in her songs, while also explicating a belief system that looks to quell desire. Lang engages in conversation with the Montreal-born Grand-Maître, sometimes expressing surprise at some of his artistic choices (they didn’t previously know each other) and marvelling that he chose to honour her through dance, an art form of which she previously had little experience. Her conversations about dance extend to members of the Alberta Ballet, Canada’s second largest classical dance company after the Toronto-based National Ballet of Canada, in particular the two female leads, Skye Balfour-Ducharme and Nicole Caron. In the film, they perform the roles of a young cowgirl-like k.d. lang and her live-wire female lover, respectively. They were not the leads in the original stage version. Chosen for the film on the basis of their winsome looks and coltish energy, these highly telegenic dancers add a huge dollop of sex appeal to a story of artistic rebellion. Lang wants to know if they felt awkward playing lesbians and asks them the question during an interview that took place on set. Both assertively say not. Love is love they repeat in unison, and lang agrees with them. “Love, of course, is wonderful,” she adds. “As long as you really understand it’s unconditional.”

This spotlight on lang’s sexuality was originally the idea of Grand-Maître, a native Quebecker who danced with Ballet British Columbia before assuming the helm of the Alberta Ballet in 2002. As a choreographer since 2007 he has been specializing in ballets inspired by pop music figures, among them Joni Mitchell, Elton John, and Sarah McLachlan. The ballets, with their pop scores and contemporary themes of sex, drugs and rock and roll, are calculated to put bums in seats, and the formula is working. Grand-Maître reports that audiences are coming for the music and staying for the ballet, eventually signing up as subscribers to the Alberta Ballet’s performances in tutus. He has reaped the benefits of taking ballet to masses, but that doesn’t mean he wants to play it safe. Balletlujah! is one of the first populist ballets to foreground lesbianism. Even lang wasn’t sure at first that it was a good idea.

k.d. lang.
Going behind the scenes to explore the artistic process, the camera follows lang inside Grand-Maître’s Alberta Ballet office where she looks surprised to hear him explain his concept for the libretto: a young woman on a journey of same-sex love. And yet it would not be exactly a literal translation. “Dance is a semi abstract art form,” remarks Grand-Maître. “You’re capturing the essence of something; you’re not trying to describe it in detail.” He tells lang that his aim is to be true to whom he thinks she is a person, even if means courting controversy by highlighting her homosexuality to an Alberta audience. She reminds him that she has already been a figure of controversy in her native province. She doesn’t elaborate but doubtless the avowed vegetarian is recalling the time she sparked the ire of Alberta’s cattle ranchers when she lambasted the consumption of meat in a 1990 TV commercial. Audiences in Alberta took to booing her off the stage. Still, she doesn’t stand in Grand-Maître’s way. She knows something he doesn’t: Albertans might be touchy about their beef, but they have tolerated their gays. They tolerated her. In the film, lang, who usually guards her privacy, speaks about growing up as a lesbian in Consort, her ironically named small Alberta town. But not in a way you might expect. She says that she never knew that her feelings for members of her own sex were in any way unusual until she moved to the city and was labelled gay, suggesting she was allowed to grow up unfettered by prejudice. That sense of openness, it is implied, came from the environment whose big blue skies and intimate relationship with nature early on inspired her as an artist. Lang speaks of “the space and the emptiness of the prairies” as being “the vast canvas” that her music was designed to fill.

A native of Alberta now residing in Toronto, Harvey captures the majesty of the land as lang describes it. His film is shot mostly outdoors – ballet scenes and all – using wide-angle lenses and time-lapse cinematography that create a sense of visual heft and sweep. The dance segments which Grand-Maître re-choreographed for Harvey’s film are similarly viewed from a point of view of awe. During a recent discussion, Harvey said he was drawn to the project out of love for k.d. lang’s music. He wasn’t especially a dance fan, and admits that he never saw a ballet before he came to film one. His lack of exposure has ended up a blessing. Harvey approaches dance like one seeing it (and pretty much he was) for the first time. What he sees as a newcomer to the art is its soaring beauty, its sensual charms, its athletic power and drive. Harvey revels in the latent eroticism of the ballet, bathing the dancers in beautiful golden lighting that makes them glisten and allowing his camera to linger on their rippled musculature as they explode like comets across the plains and foothills of the undulating land.

Director Grant Harvey.

Nature plays a big role in both the film and the original dance. After the female couple goes to the big city where there is a predictable loss of innocence, the dark disco dance floor gives way to a rain-soaked alley where the lang character performs a street ballet in which her upper body churns as her legs extend with poignant fluency. After the cleansing of the heavenly waters, the heroine returns to the prairies where she finds strength and solace in the natural environment. She extends her arms to imitate the crow and wills her spirit to fly. In the original ballet, the bird is a masked creature; in the film it is an unadorned dance performed on grass under a cloudless expanse of blue. “It’s kind of raw,” says lang of the over-all experience, also helping to explain why this hybrid film works. Balletlujah! strikes that fine balance between documentary and dance as spectacle – and it speaks to the heart.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large

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