3 May 2013
Northern Jubilee Auditorium
Jean Grand-Maître has become known for his series of ballets inspired by the songs and lives of well-known musical artists – Joni Mitchell, Elton John, and Sarah McLaughlan. With the world premiere of the fourth such production, Balletlujah!, Grand-Maître and the Alberta Ballet have struck Alberta gold. Inspired by the experiences and music of k.d. lang, the ballet ostensibly follows the love story of two women. More so however, Balletlujah! is a tribute to the spirit of Alberta and Albertans, and the heart and soul of this unique province are stunningly captured through an inspired combination of choreography, dance, set & costume designs, and of course, the music of k.d. lang.
Balletlujah! begins in the prairies of Alberta, just as lang’s story began in the tiny eastern Alberta village of Consort. In keeping with the expansive simplicity of the Alberta landscape, Grand-Maître made an inspired choice to use projections to create a setting for the ballet. To make this vision a reality, he assembled an exceptional team including Adam Larsen (video/projection) and Guillaume Lord (sets), who together have brought Alberta to life on the stage of the Jubilee Auditorium’s video projection. The scenes, collected over weeks of filming across the province – including in Consort – provide a backdrop of wheat fields, hills, mountains and endless Alberta sky. Yet, the scenes form not just a backdrop, for through Larsen’s technologically wizardry and video clips of the dancers, the ballet at times soars from the stage to the screen, and back again.
And of course, there’s the incomparable voice of k.d. lang. No artist better embodies the poignancy, simplicity, purity and fascinating uniqueness of Alberta than lang. She has lived an Albertan story, and her strong, pure voice is in perfect harmony with the soaring images and intense choreography.
The story is that of She, (the ageless child), clearly inspired by lang, who follows love from the small town prairies to the big city, learning about live and love. Her guide and guardian spirit is a crow, a symbol of protection in lang’s Buddhist faith. In her three years with the company, Hayna Gutierrez has danced the lead in many ballets, but with She, Gutierrez has found her breakout role. As the masculine jeans wearing She, Gutierrez seized the stage the moment the curtain rose (Inglewood), her intensity never wavering throughout two hours laced with emotion, intricate woman-woman partnering and long solos.
She meets her First Love (Tara Williamson), have a somewhat awkward introduction at a small town square dance (After the Gold Rush, Big Boned Gal, Crying) – clearly the idea of falling in love with another woman is not something the First Love has considered. That outward expression of same sex love might seem unusual – after all Alberta can be very conservative - but lang herself, when asked about being gay in small town, said that it wasn’t a problem. After all, in a small town, everyone was eccentric – it was in the big city where she first felt out of place.
Balletlujah! then proceeds through a land of long limbed water creatures (Wash Me Clean), and on to the physical expression of the first love (Sexuality). The latter scene was one of the best in the production - Anne-Séguin Poirer’s flesh colored trunks (men) and leotards (women) highlighted the dancers’ taut bodies as they moved through Grand-Maître’s tender, sculptural partnering. It was exquisitely sensual without being ‘in your face’, particularly with the Larsen’s subtle blend of the existing projection with that of two caressing female bodies.
In the second act, the lovers bid farewell to the prairie (Constant Craving, Sing it Loud, Helpless), and move to the big city, here Los Angeles. The mood is at first electric (Sugar Buzz), but things come crashing down when the First Love leaves with another woman (Acquiesce). In dance of stark intensity (Hain’t It Funny) She must find herself again, follow her spirit guide (Hungry Bird) and set out to find love again (Love is Everything).
The movement that drives the story along is combination of pas de deux for the female protagonists, and sweeping group dances. Grand-Maître has always stood out for his ability to move groups of dancers across a stage, and for his ability to meld man and woman into striking images. These talents were seen best in the aforementioned Sexuality, but also in the various ‘prairie people’ sections where angular dancing blended with fluid movement and the projections to bring the sensual earthiness of Alberta to life. Poirer’s airbrushed dresses, slowly transitioning from prairie-wheat yellow to prairie-sky blue, further added to the scenes by perfectly capturing the colors of Alberta. Equally as powerful were the city scenes, Larsen’s almost claustrophobic projections of rain-streaked office towers, perfectly contrasting with the peaceful Alberta images. The opening scenes of the city dwellers were reminiscent of a gaudy, LA version of Robbins’ ‘Glass Pieces’, with every type of city citizen, including one canine, striding across the stage, weaving around each other. A bit of Elton John was evident in the tightly packed, throbbing dancing in the Acquiesce club.
The company dancers looked thoroughly at home with the choreography, both in the prairie and in the city. The rigours of a long Edmonton residency week occasionally peeked through in some slight lapses in coordination and a slight lack of spark in ‘Turn Me Round’. However, it was incredible effort all around, especially considering the last minute tweaking that appears to have occurred – since Wednesday evening’s open rehearsal, there was at least one noticeable change to a projection effect, a major change to one scene and the Child Warrior listed in the last scene didn’t appear (unless I blinked!). While the male contingent often takes the spotlight in Alberta Ballet productions, the female corps held their own in Balletlujah – fitting considering the female-centric nature of the ballet. It is still thought, worth commenting on the incredible ‘stable’ of tall men that Grand-Maître has built up at Alberta Ballet. There’s still no doubt that Kelley McKinlay, whose stage presence makes him stand out in any scene, is the leading man, but Colby Parsons, Mark Wax, Garrett Groat, David Neal and Jaciel Gomez are all very impressive.
Grand-Maître saved his best and lang’s best for last. Balletlujah, of course, could only end with Hallelujah. To the strains of this memorable song, Grand-Maître set a series of powerful vignettes that celebrate life lived and a second chance at love. Yukichi Hattori is a single man, Mariko Kondo & Kelley McKinlay a couple, Alison Dubsky a pregnant woman, and the whole cast the people of Alberta and of Balletlujah.
Finally, the Alberta Ballet has a truly Albertan ballet, one that is sure to capture the hearts of Albertans, and become a treasure in the company’s repertory.