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Nicole Caron as singer k.d. lang in Alberta Ballet’s Balletlujah!

Paul McGrath

The same morning the Internet was blowing up with Jason Collins's out-of-the-closet slam dunk, Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maître was also talking same-sex love, but from a completely different perspective as he discussed his new k.d. lang ballet. Maybe it's because of the obvious difference between the basketball world and ballet, but the contrast was hard to ignore: Grand-Maître's approach to the gay love story in his new work is utterly matter-of-fact. Rather than an angst-drenched tale of coming to terms with one's sexuality, it's a romance, full stop: Girl meets girl (at a barn dance no less), girl loses girl, girl finds her true love.

"For me, it had to be a love story that was natural," Grand-Maître explains. "So we decided we would try to create a very pure love story – but it just happened to be two women – and not make a big deal out of it."

Balletlujah!, set to 17 songs in lang's repertoire, had its world premiere on Friday in Edmonton. It's the fourth so-called pop or "portrait ballet" Grand-Maître has created for the company, along with works set to the music of Joni Mitchell (The Fiddle and the Drum), Elton John (Love Lies Bleeding) and Sarah McLachlan (Fumbling Towards Ecstasy).

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"The setting for Joni was really around the world because the ballet was about war and the environment, and Elton was more about going inside his own head. Sarah was water ... [but] k.d. is bringing us home in a way," Grand-Maître said this week during a break from a Balletlujah! lighting rehearsal. "It's a very, very important creation for this company at this time."

Lang – scheduled to attend performances in both Edmonton and Calgary – may be Grand-Maître's latest pop-music muse, but he has wanted to work with her for years. Going way back, he had a concept for a ballet about an angel, called Gabriel, and he inquired about using her for the angel's voice. She was too busy at the time, and the idea was set aside.

He gave it another shot after the opening ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Olympics, where Grand-Maître was director of choreography, and where lang brought the house down with her rendition of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.

"We worked two years on that show. I think she waltzed in the day of the ceremonies. She didn't even do the dress rehearsal and she stole the show," Grand-Maître recalls. "You saw an immense, immense talent and that reinforced for me that we should work together."

This time, her schedule allowed for a meeting – and maybe a collaboration. Grand-Maître flew to Los Angeles and met with her the morning after she had pulled an all-nighter meditating to mark the Buddhist New Year. (Lang has been a practising Buddhist for several years.) "There was some kind of very peaceful aura around her," he says.

He addressed her reservations that her music – songs like Big Boned Gal – might not work for tiny ballerinas. "I had to explain to her that you can't imagine tutus. You have to really imagine performance art."

But most of the discussion was about lang's life. Was it challenging, Grand-Maître wanted to know, growing up gay in tiny Consort, Alta.? He was shocked at lang's answer: Her sexuality was not an issue. Everybody in town was eccentric, she told him, citing a math teacher who drove to work on a tractor.

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"For her, it was when she went to the big city that she realized that people had an issue with homosexuality," he says. "So you can see how in her character there is no doubt about her identity, sexually speaking. ... And when she told me that, I said: 'You know, we can't make it about becoming gay; this has to just be about love.'"

Lang was on-board.

Grand-Maître created a narrative based on that conversation, and selected the songs – including Constant Craving, Crying and, of course, Hallelujah – that would work with the story: A woman – the lang-inspired character (Hayna Gutierrez on opening night, alternating performances with Nicole Caron) – leaves the wheat fields of the Alberta Prairie for the big city, on a motorcycle with her first love (Tara Williamson, alternating with Skye Balfour-Ducharme). But there, the big-boned gal loses her lover, who is lured away by big-city women. Heartbroken, she returns home – and finds her real soulmate (Alexandra Para).

The songs span the range of lang's genres: not just pop, but torch, jazz and, of course, country. Wanting to do justice to lang's country-music roots, Grand-Maître dreamed up that barn-dance scene. He bought square-dance videos and studied them with the company in the studio. Then he applied a contemporary balletic twist to the traditional western dance, with jumps and graceful athleticism augmenting the do-si-do's. Swing your partner, indeed.

There did have to be some popular songs of lang's left out – Miss Chatelaine, Summerfling – because they didn't fit with the narrative.

A group of designers was brought in to evoke the western landscape using multimedia technology, including video projections shot in Consort. The work is very much a love letter to the Prairies – where lang is from, and where Grand-Maître has lived for just over a decade, since moving west from Montreal.

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"We wanted to do a beautiful homage to the Prairie people. Not the city folks of Edmonton and Calgary. That's not where k.d. grew up. It's the people who toiled on the land and planted and developed the really harsh terrain into a beautiful place to live," he says.

Throughout, Grand-Maître was driven to create a work that would live up to its muse. "It was a wonderful voyage choreographically," he says. "And her wonderful voice. The challenge to keep up with those notes and the power of that voice, it's almost like a symphonic piece of music when she's singing. So we had to work very, very hard to keep up with her magnificence."

Grand-Maître, who radiates passion about his work and all his pop-star muses, is working with Joni Mitchell on a second ballet for next season. And he's talking with Leonard Cohen's son Adam about a project, possibly for 2014-15. Grand-Maître – who is careful to point out that his work includes classical productions as well – says collaborating with these musicians has been among the richest experiences of his career.

"As artists, they're as important to Canadian history as Emily Carr or the Group of Seven," he says. "There's no doubt in my mind that I've been the luckiest person in the world to collaborate with living composers. Because in ballet, they usually died 200 years ago."

Balletlujah! will be performed at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton on Saturday and at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary Wednesday through May 11.

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