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The Alberta Ballet and Joni Mitchell: moments of beauty and charm

Alberta Ballet performs "Joni Mitchell's The Fiddle & the Drum" Credit: Photo: Charles Hope

In the world of the 1960s, if I were the dichotomous type and given the choice of balladeers Joni Mitchell or Judy Collins, I would have fallen into the Collins camp, favoring her crystalline and melancholy voice. I lost track of both singers’ careers soon after but was reacquainted with the Canadian born and bred composer/singer Mitchell Tuesday night at The Paramount Theatre, when the Alberta Ballet performed “Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum.” It was a full-evening collaborative work between Mitchell, who supplied 13 of her recorded songs, and her visual art, with choreography by Alberta’s artistic director Jean Grand-Maitre. The ballet was first performed in 2007, and seen here in a recently expanded version.

“The Fiddle and the Drum” is a work of dichotomy itself, described in the program as being about “Our capacity to create astonishing beauty contrasted with our insatiable hunger for unimaginable cruelty and destruction.” Mitchell’s songs came mostly from the 1980s, two set to poems by Yeats and Kipling, and a few of her standards.

She also contributed a series of blurred moving and photographed images, heavily green and pink, taken from a dying flat screen TV. Most related to war and destruction, but also included were lovely videos of wild animals. These were projected in a large circle on the backstage scrim, along with others including the orbs of earth and moon, water, and clouds, all as if seen through a giant porthole.

I had not seen the Alberta Ballet before, indeed knew little of it. The company is gorgeous. All fine technical dancers, but even more performing with energy, fervor, discipline, athleticism and an exemplary sense of musical phrasing. Perhaps best, they are a true ensemble, wonderfully rehearsed and seeming to enjoy each other’s company. That the troupe danced in their skivvies most of the night — leotards and bare legs for women, tight shorts for men, amped up our appreciation for the “astonishing beauty” and the capabilities of a trained human body.

The fine performing was expressed through the sleek modern ballet vocabulary of Grand-Maitre. He shifts his dancers well in groupings around the stage, and excels at combining the basics of ballet — upright bodies, beautiful leg extensions, arabesques and attitudes, leaps and turns, positioned arms — with moves that seem to come from many cultural sources. One highlight was Mitchell’s classic 60s anthem, “Woodstock,” heard in a later recording that was more gritty and knowing than the original. The choreography alternated quick motion and slow, undulating torsos, and liquid hip and leg swivels reminiscent of African or Indian dance.

Projected images and dancing are sometimes uneasy partners, with the latter often at risk of being upstaged by the image, moving or not. At one point I was mesmerized by watching rotating photos of earth at night, with the blazing bright lights of wealthy countries and great cities contrasted by huge chunks of the globe completely dark. I had to remind myself several times to watch the dancers and not the world.

At another time these two elements created moments of beauty and charm. During one full-out dance sequence, the performers stopped momentarily and sat down, all gazing at the image of rippling water projected on the scrim. It was a lovely moment of communitas between artists and audience as we all gazed upon an evocation of the natural world we should be better protecting.

It was good to hear Mitchell’s lyrics, when one could hear them clearly on the muddy soundtrack, bespeaking the world as a ragged place, begging for optimism for the future amid the reality of today. Her themes of environmental and human degradation can get to you over the course of an evening, and perhaps fewer songs might have served the work better.

Mitchell’s video art did not have the same power as her music, and lacked originality that would sustain interest. As for another visual element, the stage lighting, one cannot say enough good things about the design of Pierre Lavoie that gave power and immediacy to the dances, and showed off all those great bodies in motion.

“The Fiddle and the Drum” is a pop ballet, meant to entertain while delivering a message, and the Paramount audience certainly seemed taken with the work. But it was not without flaws. However beautiful his movement sequences, Grand-Maitre’s theatrical sensibility does not have a killer instinct that would make us want to think or feel more deeply about the dualism of human nature. In trying to be profound the choreographer relies too often on simplistic and banal theatrical devices.

The darkness of evil, for example, is Nazi salutes and World War II German helmets; sloth and indifference become a couch potato in front of a TV set who just sits there and scratches himself. Innocence was a little girl of eight or so appearing at several points in the piece. Using this kind of symbol and metaphor implies something deeper, but Grand-Maitre seems content to just put them out there, never allowing them to lead somewhere.

He does at times create a movement language that resonates with Mitchell’s music, such as the Woodstock segment, and when this happens it really is an exciting moment of theater. But all too often he relies on the beauty of his dancers and the luscious movement he creates to convey a deeper meaning that just doesn’t seem there. As the evening wears on most segments take on a certain similarity and we lose interest in what the choreographer might be saying, and just watch the beautiful dance go by.

The closing segment of the work had the entire company riffing on “Big Yellow Taxi.” There was a lot of hip-hop and other contemporary moves, some mugging, and much youthful exuberance filling the stage. It was a nice optimistic note on which to end the evening and then head out into the unknown night.

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