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Sarah McLachlan in Calgary last weekend to watch a dress rehearsal of "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy." (Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail)
Sarah McLachlan in Calgary last weekend to watch a dress rehearsal of "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy." (Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail)

Theatre

Sarah McLachlan's pas de deux with the Alberta ballet Add to ...

Sitting between the choreographer and costume designer Paul Hardy, McLachlan watched, wide-eyed, as the company launched into Vox, "a celebration of youthful love" in Grand-Maître's vision. A giant smile on her face - you could call it almost girlish delight - McLachlan sat through short rehearsals to four of her songs, sometimes mouthing her own lyrics. She laughed when, as prompted by the lyrics in Building A Mystery, the dancers screamed in unison.

"Boy, do they get it," she said afterward.

As delighted as McLachlan was with what she saw, Grand-Maître predicts the real effect of her visit will be on the performers. "I have a feeling that after today they're even going to dance the ballet differently, after meeting with her and the energy she gave them."

Principal dancer Kelley McKinlay, who portrays the Everywoman's dying true love in Hold On - the song that set McLachlan off - was clearly buoyed by the encounter. "To put her into tears like that, I mean, that's what you want as a dancer," he said. "That's what you strive for: to really move people. And to move the person that composed the music you're dancing to is a great feeling."

McKinlay dances with Galien Johnston, who at 31 is marking her swan song with Fumbling. "Because it's going to be my last ballet, I already have a high emotion about it, and because it's about journey, the journey of a woman, and I'm at sort of a major fork in the road in my life, I guess it has a lot of meaning personally," Johnston said after the rehearsal.

McLachlan herself is, she acknowledges, not much of a dancer. Although she says that, like every girl, she dreamed of growing up to be a ballerina, it took about a year of lessons when she was 7 in Halifax to cure her of that career aspiration. "I remember the culmination of the body of our work was us lying on the floor pretending to be cats and licking ourselves … I thought, 'I'm going to stick to music,' " said McLachlan, who is nominated for three Juno Awards for her album Laws of Illusion (and will perform at the Junos later this month).

That music is very danceable, says Grand-Maître, who was attracted to McLachlan's songs for their rhythm and lyricism. "There's theatre in it," he says. "There's a lot of emotion."

This is Grand-Maître's third pop-music ballet (or "portrait of our times," as the company is calling them). Mitchell's The Fiddle and The Drum premiered in 2007; last year it was Love Lies Bleeding, set to Elton John's music.

McKinlay, who joined Alberta Ballet at the same time as Grand-Maître, says he's heard his share of complaints about the company "selling out" with these ballets, a charge he strongly denies. "It's always the people who haven't seen it who turn their nose up about it"

This is certainly not the only example of ballet and popular music bleeding into each other. Paul McCartney is writing an original score for the New York City Ballet, and Pet Shop Boys have a ballet opening in London this month.

Grand-Maître, a respected choreographer, points out that his repertoire reaches far beyond popular music; that he takes artistic risks and has set or choreographed numerous non-pop ballets. And he says the work he does with popular music has merit.

"Choreographing Elton John is as hard as Stravinsky. Because of the syncopation, the intensity of the tunes - and they're famous. ... I always say to myself if you're going to do a ballet on these famous singers, how can you approach it in a different way that's not schlock? You don't have to do schlock."

Love Lies Bleeding - a chronicle of the highs and lows of pop superstardom - opened to good reviews, and Alberta Ballet is now trying to get the work on the road. Although not confirmed, shows in Toronto and Vancouver are likely this fall. Ultimately, Grand-Maître envisions such a high demand for Love Lies Bleeding that Alberta Ballet may create a separate touring company.

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