It was the phone call that Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maître has been waiting weeks for. Ray Cooper was on the line: percussionist, long-time collaborator, close friend and confidante to Elton John. Cooper had been to Calgary last month to see the world premiere of Love Lies Bleeding, a ballet set to the pop star's music, choreographed by Grand-Maître. John, who sent a big bouquet and a card to Grand-Maître on opening night apologizing for not being there, had sent Cooper in his place: It would be up to the drummer to watch the ballet and report back.
John had given Grand-Maître the approval to show the ballet in Alberta only. Once it was staged in Calgary and Edmonton, John would weigh in on whether the production was good enough to tour elsewhere. The stakes were high: At $1.1-million, the ballet's budget had doubled from its original estimate, and Grand-Maître would be in hot water, he knew, if the show could go nowhere.
I don't call it a Broadway show, because it ain't. Jean Grand-Maître
"This was the biggest risk I've ever taken. I pushed the company into huge investment in [a]very difficult economic time," he says.
So when Cooper called him up last week, Grand-Maître was on pins and needles. Cooper reported that he and John had spent the previous day watching the ballet on DVD and discussing it. And then: "Ray ... said the news was good. The maestro was very happy, he really loves the ballet. He loves that the ballet [deals with]themes that are important to him today: dignity for people with AIDS, compassion and tolerance for homosexuals. ... He seems to be happy that the ballet did not cop out and become highly entertaining schlock. That we used his life and challenges he faced in his life to educate."
The ballet, inspired by John's life, examines the cult of celebrity through a fan-turned-fantasy-rock-star protagonist. It deals with difficulties John himself has faced, such as drug addiction.
"I am proud of what the Alberta Ballet has created and I am looking forward to seeing this ballet live on," John said in a written statement released by the ballet company. "It is a strong, contemporary choreography that entertains and challenges dance audiences with its new aesthetics and its powerful fusion of different art mediums. I hope it will attract thousands of new patrons to this wonderful art form."
That point was key, says Grand-Maître: John is keen to bring new people to the ballet, and they both feel Love Lies Bleeding, with its hit songs, accessible story - and its superstar attached - can accomplish that. "We think between 8,000 and 10,000 people came to the ballet for the very first time in their lives with this show," says Grand-Maître.
John's approval does come with some strings. While he has asked for no changes to the content, he has indicated that the ballet cannot tour to a city where it will be competing with another John show: either a live performance, or any of his theatrical properties such as The Lion King or Billy Elliot. (Although Grand-Maître feels there may be some wriggle room in a large arts-friendly city such as New York.)
Also the ballet must be presented and marketed as such: "That means I don't call it a Broadway show," says Grand-Maître, "because it ain't."
Even before the world premiere, Grand-Maître had received offers from interested promoters around the world. He's also been called by organizations wanting to sponsor the tour - a first, he points out with a laugh. "It seems that we'll be world touring."
While he's had offers to present the ballet as early as January, 2011, Grand-Maître says a tour will likely have to wait until September, 2011. It's a massive undertaking: a two-truck tour with some 45 personnel and a lot of equipment. The logistics are daunting, but the payoff could be spectacular: Grand-Maître estimates the ballet could bring in "hundreds of thousands of dollars" each year for his company. And he thinks it will be such a hot seller, he may create a touring ensemble specifically for this property, beginning in September, 2012.
"I predict that we'll be touring for years to come and give our dancers extra weeks of work and give us some financial stability as well in these challenging times."
They're also in discussions about televising the work.
Grand-Maître, who has also created a ballet with Joni Mitchell ( The Fiddle and the Drum) and is working on a ballet set to Sarah McLachlan's music, figures the first tour of Love Lies Bleeding will concentrate on Canada, perhaps kicking off in Toronto, with some U.S. dates. But he sees it going far beyond and for years to come - perhaps with some pop ballet double-bills. And there's one city he has his eye on in particular.
"I dream to see it performed one day in London, where Elton can finally see it live: having him sitting next to us, watching his life on stage."