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Love Lies Bleeding: Ballet lite that crocodile rocks

Dancers of the Alberta Ballet in Jean Grand-Maître's production of Love Lies Bleeding.

Debra Hornsby / Banff Center/Debra Hornsby / Banff Center

Love Lies Bleeding

  • Alberta Ballet
  • At Jubilee Auditorium
  • in Calgary on Thursday

The screams of appreciation started early and came often during the debut performance of Alberta Ballet's Love Lies Bleeding. The production is clearly going to make buckets of money for the company.

And frankly, what's not to like? First, there's the music of glam-rock superstar Sir Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin. The non-stop parade of razzle-dazzle costumes by Martine Bertrand rivals Las Vegas for sheer spectacle. Adam Larsen's eye-popping projections provide the showy backdrop for the dancing (which is heavily into T and A). Beefcake abounds with an overload of men in sequined jockstraps.

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By using 14 songs by John and Taupin - though, oddly, not Love Lies Bleeding - choreographer Jean Grand-Maître has linked his company to one of the most successful pop-music teams in history. Talk about a ready-made audience.

Grand-Maître is on record as saying he regards Loves Lies Bleeding as a Broadway musical, and it's a good analogy. Each song is given a spiffy production number with its own context. And this ballet has in-your-face theatrics - it's a glitzy sound-and-light show striving to be the ultimate in stage bling. Guillaume Lord's attractive set design manages to be both lavish and minimalist, while lighting master Pierre Lavoie has showered the stage with coloured magic.

The production is not a biography of John. Rather, Grand-Maître was inspired by aspects of his life. Taken as whole cloth, Love Lies Bleeding is a celebration of the homoerotic, at least its more outrageous and extravagant expressions. Everyone and everything here is out of the closet.

In many of the numbers, it's impossible to tell the women from the men; gender-bending is the name of the game. The apogee: the drag-queen trio performing to Believe. Anthony Pina and Mark Dennis can certainly cavort in high heels, but the spins of Patrick Doe in his silver stilettos are absolutely astonishing.

On the other hand, Grand-Maître has not forgotten the painful aspects of homosexuality. There is a group of dancers he calls the Demonics who represent the darker corners of life - and, I assume, homophobic prejudice. In their three appearances, they are the purveyors of pain and victimization ( Have Mercy on the Criminal), the destroyers of beauty ( Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) and the killers of dreams ( The King Must Die).

The ballet begins with a character called Elton Fan (Yukichi Hattori). He is intrigued by the closed curtain, which opens when he jumps up onto the stage. First he finds a child on a tricycle (Clara Stripe): young Elton circling round a spotlight. From this seemingly ordinary child, and this nondescript circle of light, will grow the legendary man and his extravaganza of excess.

Suddenly, to Bennie and the Jets, Elton Fan becomes an avatar of Elton John himself. He is dressed up in a baseball outfit, replete with John's signature gaudy glasses. He becomes the lead figure in a big baseball production number. Every uniform has "Elton 1" on its back. The dancing is Broadway jazz with sass.

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Thus, Grand-Maître has his structure. Every subsequent number features Elton Fan in some fashion as he experiences his idol's life from the inside. Hattori is a formidable dancer, and Grand-Maître has given him lots of flashy choreography. There isn't one virtuoso trick from the Russian imperial style that Hattori doesn't do. The guy is a dynamo, and his talent is exploited to the max. He is also rarely off-stage and we see him being undressed and dressed before each new number. His journey is a show within a show.

The most imaginative number is Rocket Man ("I think it's going to be a long, long time …)". The projections show scenes from the cosmos, while Hattori is dressed as an astronaut. Being on rollerblades makes him move in an otherworldly fashion, and three lackeys manoeuvre his body to mimic weightlessness. Behind him are couples, the men carrying the women in a series of lifts.

The kicker: Their entire bodies are covered with small red lights; in the darkness, they glow like fantastical aliens. The coup de théâtre, though, is Hattori speeding across the stage with a stream of fire coming out of his rear end. The man becomes the rocket, as it were.

Grand-Maître has tried to include substance amid the flash and dash. The Bridge is a poignant male duet for Hattori and Kelley McKinlay that begins with a prolonged kiss. McKinlay's character is called David, perhaps referring to John's life partner, David Furnish, and the duet is a testament to love.

That said, Love Lies Bleeding is ballet lite. The choreography is sexy, with echoes of Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins, but it is more show than tell. Any deep social statements are swamped by the glitz and glamour.

And then there is the genuine worry that Alberta Ballet is becoming formulaic. First there was The Fiddle and the Drum to Joni Mitchell songs. This season it's Elton John. Next season is Sarah McLachlan. Does this mean AB is going to run through every songbook of note?

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Love Lies Bleeding continues in Calgary until Sunday, and plays Edmonton May 11 and 12.

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