Joni Mitchell ballet urges audiences to "get back to the garden."
By Jeannie Armstrong.
On January 23 and 24, Saskatoon audiences are invited to experience an amazing collaboration between Joni Mitchell and Alberta Ballet, as the full-length adaptation of the ballet The Fiddle and The Drum comes to TCU Place.
No ordinary ballet, The Fiddle and The Drum is a unique tableau of dance, music and art, voicing Joni Mitchell's long held convictions that the earth is in peril.
The legendary singer-songwriter, who grew up in Saskatoon, plans to be in attendance on opening night.
In a telephone interview from her Los Angeles home, Mitchell said she has been busy collaborating on the new full-length version of the ballet and creating new imagery for the production. Mitchell designed and composed the set for the ballet. Over 40 pieces of her art are projected onto the stage during the ballet, creating a dramatic backdrop for the dancers.
In August, Mitchell will join the ballet company at the Banff Centre for the Arts, to review choreography with Alberta Ballet's artistic director Jean Grand-Maître.
Grand-Maître first approached Mitchell with the idea of collaborating on a ballet that would be a retrospective of her life.
"I was so engrossed in the way the world was at that time it seemed kind of lightweight to me. I said, "I think it's a little fluffy for the times'," said Mitchell.
She was in the middle of putting together an art show consisting of 64 large canvasses with an anti-war theme: mammoth images of Hitler, Stalin, Bush, juxtaposed with 1930s-era Busby Berkeley dancers.
"I had a model of the gallery on my pool table because I was hanging the show in miniature and working out what pieces would go in. Jean saw this art show on the table and said, "We must put this in the ballet!'" said Mitchell.
Grand-Maître created a 48-minute ballet, part of a mixed program that premiered in Alberta in February of 2007, to rave reviews. Since then, the production has enjoyed a sold-out theatre screening in New York and a national television broadcast.
The repertoire drew from Mitchell's music of the 1980s and 1990s, songs about the degradation of the planet. "In the '80s, when most of those songs were first written, people just didn't want to know about it. They thought you were being negative. The time has come for some of these songs to be heard," said Mitchell.
Mitchell wrote two new songs for the ballet, If I Had a Heart which criticizes the U.S. war on Iraq, and If, based on Rudyard Kipling's poem about war and stoicism.
For the 2009 ballet season, Alberta Ballet has expanded The Fiddle and the Drum to a full-length ballet. Four new songs have been added, including Ethiopia, focusing on Africa's plight; Shine, from her newest album; The Reoccurring Dream, a warning against consumerism; and her prophetic anthem, Woodstock.
"Woodstock was written in 1969. "We got to get ourselves back to the garden. At that time, I knew that we had to go backward & that we have to cut back," said Mitchell. For the full-length ballet, the lyrics to Woodstock will be projected on a screen on-stage and the audience encouraged to sing along.
"It's going to have some elements that are unusual in ballet - like an encore to Big Yellow Taxi. It's kind of an interesting hybrid between a rock concert and a ballet," said Mitchell.
Grand-Maître invited Mitchell's input when developing the ballet's innovative and athletic choreography.
"Most of what I gave them was emotional instruction, so they understood what they were dancing to, what the songs meant. The emotional quality of the music is beautifully illustrated by his choreography, in a fresh way like I've never seen before," said Mitchell.
Comedic touches temper the ballet's serious theme, she added. "Although the songs are heavy and confront the issues of our time, you leave the theatre with the feeling of having seen a wonderful spectacle, and you're not bummed out or hopeless."
Mitchell and Grand-Maître plan on future collaborations. "The chemistry between the team and especially between Jean and I has been great. I've made a life-long friend. We intend to do a couple more ballets on different themes," said Mitchell.
When time permits, Mitchell travels back to Saskatoon to visit her father who now resides in a nursing home. "Mainly I come to see my dad. I'm mostly at the old age home, having dinner with the geriatrics," she laughed.
Favourite haunts include the Bessborough Hotel. "I've got a lot of memories there from my teens. I modeled there, our proms were there - I love that hotel!"
Revisiting her prairie roots is important, said Mitchell. "I enjoy driving out to Beaver Creek and taking pictures and coming home to paint them. I paint a lot of B.C. and Saskatchewan when I paint, as well as people I know."
The Fiddle and The Drum is just one highlight of the Dance Alive 2008-2009 season. The excitement begins September 30 and October 1, with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's production of Peter Pan. Tickets for both productions are available at the TCU box office.