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Balletlujah!: A lesbian love story as flat as the Prairies

Hayna Gutierrez and Tara Williamson in Balletlujah!.

Paul McGrath

Written by
Jean Grand-Maître; k.d. lang
Alberta Ballet
Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium

There's definitely a problem when the video projections in a ballet are more eye-catching than the choreography. This is the sad fact about Balletlujah!, the latest "portrait ballet" by choreographer Jean Grand-Maître, this time inspired by the music of k.d. lang.

The artistic director of Alberta Ballet has established a cottage industry for his company by creating works to the songbooks of musical icons. With Balletlujah!, lang Joins the ranks of Joni Mitchell (The Fiddle and the Drum), Elton John (Love Lies Bleeding) and Sarah McLachlan (Fumbling Towards Ecstasy).

Lang is blessed with a beautiful, mellow voice that can interpret any style, be it country and western or soulful jazz. Unfortunately, Balletlujah! does not do her talents any service.

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It's interesting that Grand-Maître has now coined a phrase to describe his pop/ballet creations. In the Balletlujah! program notes, he says: "We call them portrait ballets because they are just that; they are a depiction of their music, not their lives."

In Balletlujah!, Grand-Maître sees the musical portrait of lang as representing two threads: first, the Prairies, and second, a love story between two women.

Lang is definitely a prairie girl. Born in Edmonton, she was raised in the small village of Consort in eastern Alberta near the Saskatchewan boundary. As for the other thread, lang has been a declared lesbian since 1992. These two ideas, however, cannot sustain a full-length ballet.

There are basically only two characters. Hayna Gutierrez is She (The Ageless Child), clearly inspired by lang and sporting the singer's signature top-heavy hair-do. She is the butch character clad in jeans. Tara Williamson is First Love, the femme in an array of pretty dresses. Both dancers give touching performances, but it is not enough.

With a dearth of characters, Grand-Maître has to find things for the rest of the company to do, which gives a gerrymander feeling to the piece. There is one logical place where the ensemble belongs, and that is in a spirited square dance performed to Turn Me Round. Other than that, She and First Love are surrounded by gratuitous hordes. In Wash Me Clean, three couples are Water Creatures, performing wavy movement. In Sexuality, there are six heterosexual couples sporting nude-coloured briefs and body suits. (Why not some same-gender?)

Not surprisingly, lang's famous cover of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah is the finale song, but Grand-Maître's vision for the piece – a series of vignettes featuring unrelated characters – is inexplicable.

That said, Adam Larsen's projections, from the kaleidoscope of ravishing prairie landscapes to the clever animations, are stunning.

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For next season's portrait ballet, Grand-Maître is returning to Joni Mitchell, this time with a focus on her love songs. Here's hoping that he finds renewed choreographic inspiration.

Alberta Ballet performs Balletlujah! in Calgary May 8 to 11.

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