There's a famous exchange involving Sir Frederick Ashton, the legendary choreographer and once director of London's Royal Ballet. "How long does it take to make a ballet?" he was asked. His response: "One more week."
Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maître quotes the story over coffee in Vancouver, the morning after the first on-tour performance of his Elton John ballet, Love Lies Bleeding. It has been 1½ years since the $1.1-million ballet premiered in Calgary, and Grand-Maître has made changes to it, rechoreographing some sections, tightening up the transitions, adjusting some of the onstage costume changes and editing some of the songs.
"I thought Elton would be upset about that," he says. "But he doesn't mind. ... And it's better now than the original."
The changes come in time for this week's all-important Toronto run. About 200 presenters from around the world have been invited to attend the ballet and evaluate it for their markets.
"There's a huge amount of interest," Grand-Maître says. "[Presenters]want to see how audiences react in different cities. Because in Alberta we got so much hype. So [Toronto's]going to be the true test."
Love Lies Bleeding, set to pop songs written by John and Bernie Taupin, follows a character called the Elton Fan (powerhouse tiny dancer Yukichi Hattori at most performances) through Elton Johnesque highs and lows: superstardom, promiscuity, drug abuse, true love.
The Ballet BC presentation in Vancouver was its first performance outside Alberta, and for Grand-Maître it was a nerve-racking evening: his first experience watching the ballet from the audience (usually he stands at the back wall). He had another superstar collaborator, Sarah McLachlan, sitting next to him. "I grabbed Sarah's knees quite a few times," he says. "Sometimes I squeezed a bit too hard." (Grand-Maître premiered his "Sarah ballet," Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, earlier this year.)
His nerves were understandable: The dancers – about a third of them performing the work for the first time – had their first and only dress rehearsal that same afternoon.
"The dancers were a bit nervous. They were dancing on eggs and they were not fearless. I wanted them to be fearless. So I gave them a bit of a speech encouraging them: Little things will go wrong. Don't worry. Most of it will go well. And then they came out like a bomb. ... I was very proud of them. They were gutsy."
The audience loved it, flooding the merchandise table at intermission to pick up John-inspired sunglasses and boas.
"It's incredible," said North Vancouver resident Ken MacDonald, 58, sporting a just-purchased black feather boa. "I wasn't really sure what to expect. We go to the theatre and musicals, but not to the ballet very often. I think we'll be coming more often."
According to Grand-Maître, this was a key reason that John bought into Alberta Ballet's proposal: a user-friendly introduction to the art form. Another draw for the pop star? The moral behind the story.
"When I saw the ballet again last night, ... I realized there was a lot of angst in this," Grand-Maître says. "Some of it is pretty heavy. Sarah McLachlan looked at me [during]a scene where Elton's got so much cocaine going up his nose his face turns white. A little bit like Pacino in Scarface. And she leaned over and said, 'You're cruel.' And I said to her, 'That's what he wanted me to do.' He wanted the ballet to educate people about addiction, about drugs."
In some respects more Broadway than ballet, the technologically complex production is an expensive one to tour, with two trucks and a two-day load-in. So there's going to have to be some serious number-crunching before presenters can determine if they can book enough shows to turn a profit.
There are already bookings for Montreal and Ottawa for the spring of 2013. And there is talk of doubling the size of the company, so that Alberta Ballet can both tour and present at home.
"That would be my dream," says the company's executive director, Martin Bragg. "The whole idea is that the show would be able to go out, make a profit and return those profits to the [company]so we can invest them in the other [ballets]with Leonard Cohen or k.d. lang that Jean wants to do."
In the meantime, there are tickets to sell for Toronto. Incentives such as Groupon have been tapped to help fill the theatre on weeknights for these crucial shows.
"I think Toronto is the place," Grand-Maître says. "After Toronto, we're going to know what the life of this ballet will be."
Love Lies Bleeding is at the Sony Centre in Toronto Nov. 8-12 ( sonycentre.ca).
DEFINITELY NOT SWAN LAKE Love Lies Bleeding takes audiences – and dancers – to some unexpected places.
The dancers don roller skates and glide across the stage in virtual darkness, visible at times only because of the LED lights on their costumes. Later, some well-placed bursts of fire help to turn the Elton Fan into the Rocket Man. For this showstopper, Jean Grand-Maître says he was inspired by David Atkins's work creating the Vancouver Olympics opening ceremonies, which Grand-Maître choreographed.
Someone Saved My Life Tonight
Spider-Man, move over. In this emotional scene, the Elton Fan is liberated from his demons and takes flight with the help of angel-winged dancers. For this bit of spectacle, Yukichi Hattori had to learn how to fly in a harness – not a typical demand of the ballet. "They'd never done anything like that, and it's a very complex system," Grand-Maître says. "Now when I see Cirque du Soleil, I really appreciate it."
An empowering drag-queen trio thrills – Alberta Ballet newcomer Mark Wax in particular, as he spins across the stage in six-inch stilettos. "In rehearsal, I never look," Grand-Maître says. "When they do those things, I just kind of look away."