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Joni Mitchell in person Add to ...

By Friday morning, the time still hadn't been confirmed. Saturday was looking better. Flights were rearranged, the hotel stay extended.

But when the moment of introduction finally came to pass, Mitchell was positively glowing, sitting at the edge of the rehearsal studio, clapping her hands so widely she looked like a bird about to take flight. A canyon-sized smile spread easily across her face. Her remarks to the dancers were warm and encouraging. And a time was set up to meet and talk the following day.

"I have a pair of tights I could cut off," Mitchell jokes with Jean Grand-Maître, Alberta Ballet's artistic director, when the three of us finally sit down together. They are planning to visit the hot springs in Banff, and she didn't pack a bathing suit. Grand-Maître is here to make sure the interview doesn't stray too far from the ballet. But we don't really stand a chance.

To begin, Mitchell turns to the planet. "For the first time in my life, I'm with it," she exclaims with a throaty laugh. "Instead of being Doomsday Joan, all the calamities I've been watching for 20 years are front-page news," she says, pointing to a story in the paper about climate change.

Environmental rot was not exactly what Grand-Maître had in mind when he proposed the dance collaboration. The dance, he suggested, would revolve around a young blond ingénue and Mitchell's early life in Canada, with a set list that leaned heavily on her early hits .

"It seems kind of light," she recalls telling Grand-Maître when he came to visit her in Los Angeles about a year ago.

At the time, Mitchell was assembling a collection of photographic images for an exhibit, Green Flag Song, at L.A.'s Lev Moross Gallery. The large chartreuse-toned triptychs were created from photographic images she began taking after she returned from her summer cabin on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast to find her flat-screen TV running on negative. "There was a black-and-white movie running in green and pink, pulsing to green and yellow, then pulsing to green and white," she explains. "I kept thinking, 'This is a magical TV set.'"

Mitchell began shooting the ghostly images, modified them digitally, and printed them onto canvas. She focused on war images, jumbling current and historic footage, and added some Busby Berkeley dancers for comic relief.

"The degenerate quality of the images was absolutely appropriate for the topic," she says, lighting up an American Spirit and launching into an impassioned monologue about the folly of spending so many resources on war when they could be used to clean up the larger "earthling" problem.

When Grand-Maître saw the new artwork, he said he wanted to use it in the ballet.

"You can't put those images with that music you've chosen," Mitchell told him. But while the new songs she had started writing - the first in nearly a decade - would have made a natural accompaniment, she had actually finished only two.

And so together they refashioned the ballet into a lament for the planet, and came up with a score largely drawn from her repertoire in the eighties and nineties. She seems to take a perverse delight in the fact that most of the songs are her least popular.

Mitchell's talk sounds tough, but her demeanour is gentle, almost vulnerable: "My later work, from my sixth album on - and I did 21 or 22 - was really underrated. Every time I did an album, it was unfavourably compared to Court and Spark. Until Blue sold more over time, then it was unfavourably compared to Blue." She laughs.

"The chords I like are complex," she adds. "They're fresh in the history of harmony. They're mostly suss [suspended]chords. It's still taught in the schools not to stay on a suss chord too long. I didn't know the term suss chord, I called them chords of inquiry. They're unresolved. So, traditionally in the laws of harmony, even at the end of the 20th century, it wasn't good to go from a suss chord to a suss chord, and not to stay on them too long. I guess it's because men like to bring that to harmonic resolution. It went against the grain of normal composition."

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