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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 ...

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.

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"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.

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.

He sees Fumbling going out on the road, too: "We're already getting requests to tour Sarah across California. And it doesn't even exist yet."

This kind of art is good business. When Love Lies Bleeding tickets went on sale, Alberta Ballet recorded the highest one-day sales in its history. The online demand crashed their system. Sales for the production reached 98-per-cent capacity, trouncing the company's historic average of 75 per cent. Both Edmonton shows sold out; something that hasn't happened for Alberta Ballet there since the company brought Baryshnikov to town in 1995. Sales for Fumbling are so good that a show was added this week.

So how does a Hull, Que.-born, Calgary-based choreographer get all these megastars to play ball(et)? Meeting Grand-Maître, 47, it's not difficult to understand. He's a charmer in the most genuine of ways. There's no slick showmanship, but a passionate authenticity with a dash of self-deprecation.

Still, you don't get Elton John to let you create a ballet around his music simply because you're a great guy. Grand-Maître says the attraction for these musicians lies in the novelty. "They've done the Olympics, the Academy Awards, the Grammys. They've toured around the world, and they've written music with other great musicians. But this is something different for them and it's a reinterpretation of their own work, which I think is what they find interesting."

Also, they like what they see. John did not grant permission to the company to tour Love Lies Bleeding outside Alberta until the show had premiered, earning his approval.

And McLachlan, after her little hors d'oeuvre, was clearly delighted. "It was beautiful. Really, really powerful. … I am in capable hands. Very capable hands."

Grand-Maître's not done with pop ballets yet. He has been speaking with Leonard Cohen's son, Adam, about setting a ballet to his dad's music. "With every one of them, it's been so different. With Joni, it's been a heavy collaboration; with Elton it was far away but still there, still supporting. And if it works with Leonard, maybe it'll become a collaboration with his son, an homage to his father.

"So they always take different roads," says Grand-Maître, "which means the ballet never looks the same."

Fumbling Towards Ecstasy runs in Calgary May 5 to 7 and Edmonton May 13 to 14. Visit albertaballet.com.



A Brief History of Pop Ballets

With Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Jean Grand-Maître delivers his third pop ballet, following 2007's The Fiddle and the Drum, set to the music of Joni Mitchell; and last year's Elton John tribute, Love Lies Bleeding. But he's not alone in tapping AM music for FM inspiration.

Tommy

In 1970, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens broke ground with Fernand Nault's ballet choreographed to the Who's classic rock opera.

Rooster

British Choreographer Christopher Bruce created this acclaimed ballet in 1991 for the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève. Set to eight early Rolling Stones songs - including, of course, Little Red Rooster - the ballet examines sexuality and the battle of the sexes through the lens of the sixties.

Straight Life

This ballet, by Sudbury native and former National Ballet of Canada dancer Matjash Mrozewski, is set to music by Bruce Springsteen. It premiered at Pittsburgh Ballet Theater in 2004, when Mrozewski, who is based in Toronto, was still in his 20s.

Billboards

The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago created what's been called America's first full-length rock ballet to songs by Prince, in 1993, with choreography by Laura Dean, Charles Moulton, Margo Sappington and Peter Pucci.

The Most Incredible Thing

Pet Shop Boys created an original score for this classic Hans Christian Andersen tale, with choreography by Javier de Frutos. It opens at London's Sadler's Wells Theatre March 17.

Ocean's Kingdom

Don't look for any yellow submarines when this ballet, set partly in an ocean world, has its world premiere at New York City Ballet in September, 2011. The music is by Paul McCartney (with choreography by Peter Martins), but the former Beatle is writing an original score.

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