Angel with a lariat: Alberta Ballet lassoes ‘Balletlujah,’ k.d. lang’s lost-then-found love affair

Friday 18th, September 2015 / 11:35
By Christine Leonard

Balletlujah-webCALGARY — Amore is in the air as the Alberta Ballet prepares to present their 49th season with a program that promises to win over the hearts and minds of budding and established dance fans alike. For the company’s artistic director, Jean Grand-Maître, orchestrating a showcase of titles that will appeal to a wide variety of patrons is a balancing act in itself.

“We are not exclusively for the high aficionados of dance,” he says. “We want to bring people in to the theatre so that they can fall in love with dance. The idea is to introduce new audiences to the multilayered and visually stimulating world of dance through the interplay of lyrics, scenery and movement.”

Curating a line-up satisfies Calgary’s constant craving for crowd-pleasers like Romeo and Juliet and The Nutcracker is only one half of the equation. Grand-Maître’s more abstract selections, such as the debut of ballets by emergent choreographers Yukichi Hattori and Wen Wei Wang, reflect his admirable sense of artistic curiosity. It was this creative impetus that spurred him to explore the possibilities of pairing pop music classics with the athleticism Alberta Ballet’s top dancers. He has since gone on to produce three popular music-based productions, including tributes to Joni Mitchell and Elton John. Of course, it is the company’s homage to the oeuvre of Juno and Grammy Award winner k.d. lang, Balletlujah, that has won critical acclaim and the honour of opening this season’s performance schedule.

“I first became interested in k.d.’s music and getting to know her career after we both worked on the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics. Like many people, I became enamoured with her albums and learned why people like Tony Bennett describe her as one of the greatest voices of the century. She is an extraordinary talent and it’s easy to see why everyone from opera singers to pop icons venerate her seeming facility and genius in interpreting music. With this in mind, I approached her about writing a ballet about her life in Alberta and started this conversation about how the prairie landscape influenced her voice and her perception of music.”

A knowledgeable artistic director with numerous dramatic dance productions including Love Lies Bleeding to his credit, Grand-Maître is gratified to have the opportunity to remount the much-loved Balletlujah, which has not been performed since it was originally presented in 2013. That is, unless you include the exclusive CBC documentary on the production which aired on the network this past June. Little did the-master-of-romance expect, the nonfictional film about his relationship and collaboration with k.d. would add the qualification of matchmaker-to-the-stars to his resume as one of the film’s producers, Heather Edwards, would go on to become k.d.’s life-partner. For, Grand-Maître it’s just another confirmation that their interdisciplinary alliance was meant to be. Forearmed with some shrewd post-production notes from a keenly observant k.d., he is thrilled to be able to reapproach their shared vision with fresh eyes and the benefit of a talented design team capable of seducing even the most jaded members of the lonely hearts club.

“Blues, jazz, torch, country, folk; k.d. lang has done it all. I really studied her entire catalogue in depth and then met with our singers to ask them what songs they felt would move our narrative forward. Whereas the Joni Mitchell production was abstract and Elton’s was a cabaret, for this production we tapped into k.d.’s eclectic repertoire to tell a story of a young girl moving to the city, being lost, finding her roots and true love. I’m so lucky to have a group of six creative designers, half of whom are from Cirque du Soleil, collaborating with me on this remounting. They always make the subject matter interesting and aren’t afraid to delve into provocative themes and aesthetics in order to capture these brilliant pop artists and the essence of their time.”

Balletlujah runs at the Jubliee Auditorium from Sept. 24 to Sept. 26 in Calgary and Oct. 2 to Oct. 3 in Edmonton.

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