You can't blame Jean Grand-Maître for being a nervous wreck these days, or as close to a nervous wreck as the suave, personable artistic director of Alberta Ballet might get. As he puts the finishing touches on his ballet Love Lies Bleeding - set to Elton John's pop songs - Grand-Maître is awaiting word on whether John will show up for next week's world premiere and, more importantly, whether the pop star will give the ballet his blessing - a blessing upon which the future of the production hinges.
"The premiere probably is the most important in my career and the ballet company's history," Grand-Maître says from his office during a break from rehearsals. "There's a lot riding on that opening night."
The first performance is sold out, and many of those attending will be international presenters who would like to bring the ballet to their stages - in Las Vegas, London, Asia, on Broadway and beyond - markets Grand-Maître says were "unfathomable" to his company before. He figures he'll be able to tour it for at least five to 10 years, extending Alberta Ballet's season, providing his company sustainability, and his dancers a better livelihood. There's also talk of touring a double-bill with Joni Mitchell's The Fiddle and The Drum, Grand-Maître's previous pop ballet. "The sky's the limit if [John]gives us the go-ahead."
John's initial involvement began two years ago, when the pop star saw a video of The Fiddle. Impressed, he invited Grand-Maître and his dancers to a concert at Calgary's Saddledome, and met them backstage. Afterward, Grand-Maître sent John an e-mail, proposing that he create a ballet to John's music. To Grand-Maître's great surprise, John invited him to meet in Las Vegas (on Valentine's Day, last year). It was there that John offered his support for the project.
"He told us that he believes in this company," says Grand-Maître, 47. "He liked what we did. A lot of people approached him. Broadway wanted to do a Mamma Mia-like thing with his songs and other choreographers approached him, but he liked The Fiddle and The Drum and he said 'these are the people that I think should do this.'"
Grand-Maître created a ballet that is inspired by John's life, but not a biography per se. It's more an examination of the cult of celebrity, the trance-like admiration offered up to stars like John that can turn pop music into a sort of religious experience.
The work's central character is a fan who starts out in the audience, then climbs over the orchestra pit onto the stage and begins to live out his rock star fantasies, to the tune Bennie and the Jets. The baseball costumes in the sequence are an ode to Elton John's seminal 1975 concerts at Dodger Stadium, where he wore a sequined Dodgers uniform. The hero then travels through the triumphs and challenges of superstardom, some of which resemble events from John's life, including drug abuse and falling in love.
As one might expect from an Elton John ballet, there is plenty of spectacle: aerialists, dancers on spinning turntables, fire-emitting roller skates, underwear-sporting gladiators, and Clockwork Orange-inspired demons. "It's like Fellini meets the burlesque in the most outlandish way," says Grand-Maître. "It's really a three-ring circus à la Elton John."
With more than 150 costumes and elaborate sets (the set designer came from Cirque de Soleil), the lavish production has twice gone over budget and sits at $1.1-million ( The Fiddle and The Drum came in at $263,000).
"I've never had so much on the line, because I'm gambling a lot with this piece," says Grand-Maître. "I've put so much money into it. We'd be crazy with a name like Elton John not to go all the way."
John has not been an official collaborator, but in conversations and e-mail exchanges with Grand-Maître has offered insights into his life, and some key suggestions for the ballet, beginning with the title. It was John who suggested it be changed from Elton, as it was originally billed, to Love Lies Bleeding (from the song Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding). He also proposed the inclusion of the songs The Bridge, for the scene where the main character falls in love and finally embraces his homosexuality; and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, for the scene where the rock star first meets his inner demons.
"There's been [a bit of help]here and there," says Grand-Maître, "but it's really been a carte blanche kind of 'give you my blessing, go for it, and good luck.'" But once John has seen the ballet, he'll decide whether the company will be allowed to tour it using his songs beyond Alberta.
In any case, Grand-Maître has lined up another pop star collaboration for next season, when he presents the world premiere of a ballet set to Sarah McLachlan's songs.
McLachlan's management originally turned down Grand-Maître's proposal, saying it was too busy a year with her new CD coming out, and the Lilith tour. But after McLachlan saw T he Fiddle and The Drum last January at Vancouver's Cultural Olympiad (sitting next to Grand-Maître), she decided to make time, delivering the news personally at a dress rehearsal for the Olympic opening ceremonies (which Grand-Maître choreographed and where she performed). "She said 'I would be honoured,'" he recalls. "'Go for it.'"
Grand-Maître, who is thinking about calling the ballet Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, is expecting a close working relationship. "She will collaborate the way Joni did in a very intimate way."
Grand-Maître may be developing a reputation for being the king of the pop ballet (he's dreaming of a fourth production, set to Peter Gabriel's tunes). If so, he says he doesn't mind.
"The concept is to create legitimate ballets to this music, not just highly-entertaining, in-your-face kind of schlock, you know? It has to have values. It has to have challenges for the dancers: emotionally, technically, artistically."
It's unclear whether John will make it to Calgary for the world premiere on Thursday. His management has informed Alberta Ballet that he will not be there. But in an interview with the L.A. Times earlier this year, John said he was planning to attend. Alberta Ballet is proceeding as if John will show up - as well as McLachlan and Mitchell - and is planning a red carpet event.
However John comes to a decision about the ballet - whether it's by sending an agent, watching a videotaped performance, or thrilling the Calgary audience by showing up - Grand-Maître is viewing this not only as a world premiere, but as an all-important audition.
"The pressure's on," he says. "If at the end of the show, the thumb goes down, I'm moving to a little lake in Northern Alberta with a fishing rod for the rest of my life."
Love Lies Bleeding will be performed May 6-9 at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary and May 11 and 12 at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton ( www.albertaballet.com).