An Alberta Ballet production. Presented by Ballet B.C. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, November 14. Continues until November 16
The Sarah McLachlan fans were clearly drawn to the rhythms of a new ballet set to her music—and not just to watch the dance performance. At opening night for Alberta Ballet’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, the star songstress was in attendance, and she was greeted not only by deafening applause when she walked up the aisle from front of house to her seat, but by the iPhone-toting, Instagram-obsessed masses at intermission.
Choreographer Jean Grand-Maître’s new pop ballet should mostly please those Lilith Fair faithfuls; simple, yet full of fast-flowing video imagery and dance, it stays true to McLachlan’s songs and emotional resonance. Less flashy than Grand-Maitre’s Elton John ode Love Lies Bleeding, Fumbling is, if anything, surprising for how balletic it is, en pointe and fusing perfectly extended arabesques, sculptural lifts, and showy, scissoring grands jetés with McLachlan’s rock rhythms. Let’s call it high-culture casual, or maybe grace with groove.
Grand-Maître attempts to sew a string of interjoined hits together with a storyline that follows a girl’s life (played by different performers) from childhood innocence through to first love, betrayal, loss, and the healing bond of sisterhood. There is strong, audacious use of video projections on a giant screen here, from the recurring motifs of the ocean waves that McLachlan loves so much to the singer’s own swirling, mendhi-flavoured drawings.
The strongest moments are its least literal, when the show transcends the narrative to get at the amorphous ache of honest emotion that McLachlan bares in her music.
There’s a gorgeous pas de deux set to “Bring on the Wonder”, with partnering that’s offbeat yet beautiful: at one point, charismatic Cuban dancer Jaciel Gomez swings the supple Nicole Caron around and around in gorgeous sculptural poses and ends with her vulnerably curled up around his neck. That flows into “Vox” ’s celebration of love, with the recurring motif of straight lines of dancers rushing and jumping across the back of the stage as the couple pairs. And there’s an exhilarating epilogue, bathed in rippling projections of golden taffeta, that’s an abstracted blur of whirling pas de deux and wildly jumping and turning men in black, set to the plaintive “Angel”.
Moments that tip-toed into the too literal? “Ice” ’s scene where three black-bra-wearing floozies lure away the sleeping Caron’s man (though you have to like the audacity of the sex-charged moves, Gomez lifting a dancer at one point, thrusting his face into her groin, while she bends her splayed legs around him like a black widow on its prey). There’s also an obvious moment where three dark angels come to carry away a dying lover, and the cherry-topped costume on one dancer in the playful “Ice Cream” was, well, a little on point.
Perhaps, though, this is the kind of small “fumbling” that happens when you’re trying to overlay story ballet on contemporary songs.
Are Grand-Maître’s accessible pop hybrids (his latest project is with k.d. lang) the key to dance’s survival? What was clear from Fumbling Towards Ecstasy’s opening night was that new audiences were coming out to the ballet for the first time—and that can’t be a bad thing, smartphone-cams flashing or not.