BY ROBIN J. MILLER
In the latest issue of Footnotes, Dance Victoria’s subscriber newsletter, Stephen White asks the question “Is Alberta Ballet selling out with its series of ‘pop’ or (as they call them) portrait ballets or is it actually an innovator?”
The answer for the audience in Victoria last night (November 8, 2013) was: who really cares, when we’ve got something this much fun to watch?
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is the company’s third full-length pop-ballet fusion, featuring the music of singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan, following works set to the music of Joni Mitchell and Elton John. Since it premièred in 2011, choreographer and Alberta Ballet Artistic Director Jean Grand-Maître has added Balletluja!, inspired by the music of k.d. lang, while a second ballet based on Joni Mitchell’s work is scheduled for next spring.
The company may have too tight a lock on this format, but there is a sort of historical precedence: Tchaikovsky, for instance, produced the popular music of his day, too. Using today’s music is a way of honouring the here and now, and how can you argue with it if it pulls in new audiences (the première of Fumbling was, according to news reports, packed with Sarah McLachlan fans). But at the same time, it can potentially push away non-fans – people who might have considered going to a performance but do not actually like or know the artist so heavily featured. And even for avowed fans, it must be careful not to rely too much on their fondness for the music; it must have its own artistic integrity.
So, another question: Does Fumbling Towards Ecstasy stand on its own as a good piece of dance? Yes, it does, perhaps more so than any of Alberta Ballet’s other experiments with pop music. McLachlan writes songs that tell stories and these stories follow certain themes, making it relatively straightforward for Grand-Maître to string together a narrative arc that he refers to in the program notes as “the deeply spiritual odyssey of a woman’s life.” He does not use just one woman, though: various dancers portray the “Lead Woman” at different times in her life, from innocent youth to first love to heartbreak and back again, even to age and death.
The result is a ballet that is fresh, dynamic, at times beautiful and moving and only occasionally irritating.
Fumbling opens with a bang, some 30 highly trained dancers all on stage at once, at the height of their skill and beauty. They are marvelous to watch. But it only really settles into its narrative groove with “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” a few songs in, when the girls discover the charms of boys for the first time. And then it really begins to cook, with a pair of pas-de-deux by Nicole Caron and Jaciel Gomez to the fifth and sixth McLachlan songs, “Bring on the Wonder” and “Vox.” Here – and later in the second half, in a second set of linked pas-de-deux, achingly well-danced by Mariko Kondo and Kelley McKinlay to “Illusions of Bliss” and “Hold On” – is Grand-Maître’s choreography at its best. The movement so perfectly suits the music, blending contemporary bodylines with classical feet. Several of the lifts, often eccentric and in theory awkwardly athletic, head below feet or legs widespread, are in practice both beautiful and tender. And Kondo in the next piece, “Good Enough,” where she grieves the loss of her too-young lover, breathes both sorrow and courage throughout her body.
Where Grand-Maître doesn’t quite succeed is how to use the rest of the company as effectively as he does his soloists. At first, having the dancers quickly crossing the stage from one wing to another (showing us time passing?) is viscerally exciting, but it is repeated too often and eventually loses its edge. What jars most for me in this production, however, are the very busy video projections. They distract from the work (and from the terrific lighting design by Pierre Lavoie) and are often far too literal in interpreting the content of a song – an apple and a snake, for example, we all know what that means! – where the dance is figurative. There is at least one questionable costume choice, too, by designer Paul Hardy, where he veers into bondage attire, and I would have liked the “sisterhood” of dancers to be even more feisty and assertive, but these are quibbles.
Grand-Maître has, overall, created a ballet that has both commercial appeal and artistic merit. I’d see it again anytime.
– Robin J. Miller