Her ballads have served as a tear-generating soundtrack for countless brokenhearted fans, but in a Calgary rehearsal hall on a recent frosty afternoon, Sarah McLachlan had the emotional tables turned on her. The Canadian superstar wept as she watched for the first time a sorrowful pas de deux to her lament, Hold On. It's the darkest moment in the ballet Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, currently being created by Alberta Ballet's artistic director Jean Grand-Maître, and set to McLachlan's music.
"I was trying to hold back my tears … it was just so emotional," McLachlan said after the short rehearsal. "That performance was so beautiful and Jean the whole time was saying, 'You know this is just the beginning and it's only half-way done.' And I'm like, 'Shut up. This is so gorgeous.' "
The ballet, Grand-Maître's latest set to pop music, explores a woman's life - not McLachlan's, specifically, but the life of an Everywoman developed by the choreographer in consultation with the 43-year-old singer.
The two met in rehearsal for the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics last year; Grand-Maître choreographed McLachlan's number. A couple of weeks later, at the intermission of the Vancouver premiere of Grand-Maître's Joni Mitchell ballet, The Fiddle and The Drum, he cornered McLachlan and asked if she would consider letting him choreograph a ballet to her songs.
"It was an instant yes," McLachlan remembers. She was impressed with Fiddle's first act, and also by Grand-Maître during the Olympic preparations. "It was a joy to watch him work with the dancers and to see the greatness that he pulled out of them." (Watching him dance during one of those rehearsals with her now-eight-year-old daughter, India - including lifts - didn't hurt either.)
A few months later, Grand-Maître was at McLachlan's home, set on a forested lot in West Vancouver. There, they went through the list of songs he had selected for the ballet (including Drawn to the Rhythm, Into the Fire and Ice Cream) and he quizzed her about their inspiration. He wanted to know which colours and seasons she associated with each song.
He also wanted to hear about her experiences as a woman. They talked about first loves, motherhood, divorce (McLachlan has split from the father of her two children) - as well as the guilt women have a tendency to feel, the joys of life, the struggles.
Their conversations formed the backbone of the libretto. "It's not specifically about me, but there are nuances and essences of my story and of lots of other women's stories," said McLachlan.
"Being a woman in this day and age is a really fascinating, interesting experience," she added. "Just such a massive change from even 30 years ago. One or two generations passed, and opportunities and possibilities for us are in the stratosphere. Yet we still have the weight and the history of thousands and thousands of years of male domination. So we profess to have it all, we want to have it all, we get to have it all … but finding that balance is so precarious."
Grand-Maître jokes that this ballet has been created by an all-male team of set, costume, lighting and video designers, along with Grand-Maître. "I said [to Sarah] 'We're all guys and we're trying to capture what is the ethos of woman today.' And she said, 'Half of you are gay; that's going to help.' "
As the ballet's Everywoman progresses through life, she is portrayed by six dancers - who range from age 11 during Ben's Song ("the innocence of childhood" reads Grand-Maître's description) to 53 by the time they reach Mary ("wisdom from experience"), a song inspired by McLachlan's mother. At key moments, she is supported by a sisterhood of dancers, who empower her to survive life's most difficult challenges.
Just don't call it a feminist ballet.
"I think it's so limiting to say it's a feminist ballet or it's a feminine ballet," said McLachlan. "I think the idea, the essence of a whole woman encompasses so much more. … sensuality, sexuality, feminism, femininity, humanity."
Though a key consultant, McLachlan has not been privy to the details of the ballet. She wants to be surprised, she says, when she shows up for the world premiere in Calgary in May. Still, she did stop in to watch a bit of the rehearsal while in town last Sunday on her current tour - "a little hors d'oeuvre," Grand-Maître called it.