Alberta Ballet's Love Lies Bleeding is a challenging spectacle
During his 10 years with Alberta Ballet, principal dancer Kelley McKinlay has taken on some challenging roles. There was Carmen’s Don José and Iago in Othello. But nothing could prepare him for what’s involved in playing the lead role in Love Lies Bleeding, choreographer Jean Grand-Maître’s full-length ballet based on the music of Elton John and his lyricist, Bernie Taupin.
McKinlay plays the part of the ultimate Elton John fan, dressing up in the kinds of outrageous outfits the over-the-top musician is known for. But there’s a twist to all those frenzied costume changes: McKinlay never leaves the stage.
“I have never been so stressed in my entire life,” the 28-year-old artist says in a phone interview, referring to the first time he performed the show live. “Usually with costume changes you get a rest period, when you can catch your breath. Here, I’ve had to figure out how to change from a costume that looks like it takes 15 minutes to get on while making it on time for the next number and making it look graceful, because there’s an entire audience watching you.…The whole piece requires a lot of stamina.”
Love Lies Bleeding, which Alberta Ballet is bringing to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, isn’t a bio of the flamboyant musician. Rather, songs like “Bennie and the Jets” and “Rocket Man” are used as a springboard to launch into topics such as homophobia and enduring love—and into some wildly varied dance moves, from jazz to hip-hop.
Alberta Ballet artistic director Grand-Maître says the work came about serendipitously. He’d finished Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum, his 2007 ballet centred on a collection of the folksinger’s tracks. Mitchell had told a friend about the production, someone who happens to work closely with Elton John. A week later, Elton was in Calgary on tour and, intrigued, arranged for Grand-Maître and a few of the dancers to meet him backstage before the show. They gave him a DVD of the Mitchell ballet.
Before you could say “yellow brick road”, Grand-Maître found himself in Las Vegas, sitting across a restaurant table from the superstar, talking about collaboration.
“We were very lucky to be at the right place at the right time,” Grand-Maître says, on the line from his Calgary office. “When I met with him in Vegas, he immediately started telling me about his life, about how many challenges he’s faced, how many hardships. He was addicted to alcohol. He was addicted to drugs. He was repressed as a homosexual. He wanted the ballet to talk about addiction, homosexual dignity, dignity for people living with HIV/AIDS. And he wanted it to draw new people to dance, people who’d never been to a theatre to see dance who would try it once.
“Once I left Vegas I started working on the script, and I felt it had to be a fantasy about a man who achieved superfame,” Grand-Maître adds. “With so much power, money, and influence so quickly, the pressure is inhumane. You see so many superstars dying of overdose, like Amy Winehouse. Elton is a survivor, which is rare. Not only is he a survivor, but he has values, and he’s made sure that everything has meaning in his life.”
And being one of the most recognized artists in history, the man born Reginald Kenneth Dwight provided rich material to work with. The 48-year-old Grand-Maître, who grew up listening to Elton John’s music, says he went all out, spending nearly $1.5 million on the production, which incorporates 150 costumes and surreal video projections.
The show clearly isn’t your typical story ballet. Grand-Maître says audiences should expect anything but.
“It’s more a dance spectacular than a ballet,” he says. “Some of it [the movement] is Bob Fosse–inspired; there’s cabaret, contemporary, athletic movement. We weaved in Rollerblading and flying [using harnesses] like Cirque du Soleil. The whole spectrum is there.
“It’s quite a hybrid,” he adds. “It’s like a Broadway-slash-Vegas show with ballet.”
Although it’s a spectacle, Grand-Maître says Love Lies Bleeding also makes viewers think.
“There’s a song called ‘The Bridge’,” he explains. “In the ballet, it’s about having the courage to cross a bridge in life and transform yourself. There are so many of us that compromise with our lives and live experiences we don’t really want to go through, but we don’t have courage to change our vision of our lives, our vision of ourselves. The spirit of that song is to cross that bridge into a new life.
“The ballet is escapism with some truth in it,” adds Grand-Maître, noting that he’s hoping people will come to the show dressed up like rock stars or Elton John himself. “It’s a fun night out. It’s like a rock concert. Audiences are singing along and tapping their feet.”
Love Lies Bleeding could be described as a variation on a theme; besides The Fiddle and the Drum, Grand-Maître has also created a ballet set to music by local songstress Sarah McLachlan, called Fumbling Towards Ecstasy.
Is Grand-Maître getting predictable?
He quashes any notions about Alberta Ballet becoming formulaic.
“We’ve done three pop ballets now, but they’re completely different from each other; they don’t even remotely resemble each other. If it’s formulaic to use pop music, then wouldn’t it be formulaic to use classical music all the time? It would become formulaic if the ballets resembled each other and followed the same recipe, but we’re avoiding that at all costs.”
He notes that in the last two years alone, Alberta Ballet has danced to everything from John Zorn to Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky.
“Within a season, we try to balance all our repertoire so pop ballets don’t become so big they eat everything up,” he says. “But they are successful at bringing new audiences to our theatres. Hopefully, there will be more new faces subscribing to ballet, as we’re seeing here in Alberta. Gradually, maybe their taste will evolve; then maybe they will appreciate all forms of dance.”
Dancing to Elton John songs, McKinlay says, adds more theatrical depth to Grand-Maître’s already vivid choreography.
“One of the strongest parts of his work is that it’s very theatrical,” says McKinlay. “There’s always been a lot of focus on character, and with Elton John’s music, it’s even more dramatic.
“It’s a huge roller-coaster ride,” he adds. “I’m so dead at the end of it. But when the music for that last solo kicks in, I can’t help but just go for it.”
Love Lies Bleeding comes to the QueenElizabeth Theatre next Thursday to Saturday (October 13 to 15).