Jean Grand-Maître has pulled off no shortage of artistic feats in his decades-long career as a choreographer of international stature. Now in his eighth year as artistic director of Alberta Ballet, Grand-Maître has designed dance for large-scale musicals and operas, collaborated with multimedia artist Michel Lemieux for the street parade celebrating Montreal’s 350th anniversary, and been commissioned by the National Ballet of Cuba, Paris Opera Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, and the National Ballet of Canada.
But nothing could prepare him for what he calls his most daunting and rewarding creation to date. Grand-Maître made The Fiddle and the Drum in close collaboration with legendary musician Joni Mitchell.
A native of Hull, Quebec, Grand-Maître admits he grew up listening to the likes of Edith Piaf rather than anyone from Western Canada. The idea to feature the prolific songwriter goes back several years, he explains, when he took a friend’s idea to pay tribute to Mitchell—who was born in Fort McLeod—to celebrate Alberta Ballet’s 40th anniversary,
Speaking with the Straight at an organic coffee shop on Granville Island—he and his partner have rented a nearby apartment while he works on choreographing the Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies—Grand-Maître recounts that when he first approached Mitchell’s management about a ballet highlighting her art (she’s best known for her music but also paints), he was warned that if the singer were to agree to the project, she’d want to be heavily involved, with an emphasis on heavily.
Grand-Maître had no problem with that. But first he had to sit down with her to see if the two clicked. It was during their first dinner conversation on a sun-splashed terrace in Los Angeles with plenty of cigarettes that he realized the kind of thinker he was dealing with.
“She is the most intellectually stimulating person I’ve ever met,” says the genial Grand-Maître. “She is a genius. It took me a year to get up to speed with her, to be able to have a five-hour conversation with her: she’ll cover paganism, Nietzsche, music, history, philosophy, war, life, death, sex, and where you can find the best shoes.
“She’s like the Stanley Kubrick of music: not many songwriters are masters in every genre. She did jazz, folk, blues, rock. She’s the greatest Canadian songwriter there is.”
There’s no denying Mitchell’s prolific and lauded songbook. She went from playing small Prairie-town clubs to having dinner with Johnny Cash at his home along with Bob Dylan and Graham Nash, performing alongside James Taylor, and being inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. According to Grand-Maître, she calls Jack Nicholson and Annie Leibovitz friends.
Yet despite her phenomenal success, Mitchell made it clear to Grand-Maître that she didn’t want the ballet to be biographical. Rather, she wanted it to draw attention to urgent causes that are dear to her heart: environmental degradation and war.
“She said, ”˜There are lots more interesting and important things going on in the world,’ ” Grand-Maître notes. “In a lot of ways she was ahead of her time. It was 1970 when she came up with the lyrics ”˜They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot.’
“She feels we are going to be extinct as a species if we don’t smarten up,” he adds. “We are bad caretakers. Environmental neglect is happening all over the world, and we have to look at the bigger picture. Someone asked her, ”˜What if people from the oil industry come to see it?’ [She said,] ”˜They should come to see it.’ Maybe we’ll inspire some people to change their thinking.”¦We didn’t want the ballet to be depressing. We wanted it to be a good night out.”
The Fiddle and the Drum premiered in Calgary in 2007. Since then, Grand-Maître and Mitchell have elaborated on the theme to create a full-length ballet. Vancouver audiences will be the first to see the new version when it plays at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre tomorrow through Sunday (January 22 to 24) as part of the Cultural Olympiad.
Set to 14 of Mitchell’s songs that span her career, the ballet also features some of her most recent paintings, images of which will be projected on a large screen above the stage.
“She’s worked for a fee that wouldn’t even get half a car,” Grand-Maître adds. “She’s a perfectionist. She’s very self-critical of the aesthetic choices she makes.”
She also helped him come up with an idea for costumes given their tight budget: dancers wear mostly body paint in the $90,000 production.
“It looks as if they’re coming out of the paintings: there are jade greens, champagne yellows, cobalt blues,” the choreographer says.
The choreography is a world removed from much of Grand-Maitre’s most recent work, such as his popular versions of Carmen and Cinderella. Here, the artist known for his theatricality cranks up the physicality.
“The movement is highly athletic,” he says. “The dancers look superhuman, like spiritual Olympians.”
Some of the movement evokes characters in certain Mitchell songs—Killer Kyle from “The Beat of Black Wings”, for instance—while other numbers call for more abstract interpretation.
“Every song is a world unto itself,” Grand-Maître says. “Yet we wanted the ballet to be like a play. There is very deliberate sequencing of the songs, as Joni said, ”˜in case there’s a playwright in the room.’ ”
The attention to detail has paid off and opened doors for Grand-Maître. CBC News described The Fiddle and the Drum as one of “the decade’s most significant moments in performing arts”.
Following its 2007 run, Elton John’s management contacted the dance maker to see if he’d do a work based on the Rocket Man’s music. (Love Lies Bleeding premieres in Calgary in May.) Then there’s his Olympics gig (which he’s prohibited from discussing publicly).
But perhaps the most meaningful nod to Grand-Maître’s artistic accomplishment comes from Mitchell herself, who on her Web site describes The Fiddle and the Drum as the greatest project of her career.
“She has worked with [Charles] Mingus and Miles Davis,” Grand-Maître says. “To hear her say that in the context of her life’s work is very humbling.”