Just before the Alberta Ballet program was about to start, the house lights shot up to full instead of fading to black. Up the aisle walked artistic director Jean Grand-Maître, and on his arm was songstress Sarah McLachlan, looking absolutely gorgeous in stiletto heels and a short, figure-hugging satin dress.
To say the applause for the pair was thunderous is an understatement, but it was a precursor of what was to come. A second standing ovation greeted the end of Grand-Maître's new ballet, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, set to McLachlan's plaintive songs.
Grand-Maître has unabashedly defined his company as the home of pop-ballet fusion. The McLachlan songbook follows hard on the heels of full-length works set to the music of Joni Mitchell and Elton John. You could say pop-ballet has become an Alberta Ballet cottage industry. Can Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot be far behind?
The good news is that, despite the formula that seems to be developing in the AB repertoire, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is a very attractive work. Where The Fiddle and the Drum (Mitchell) seemed overloaded with amorphous couple dancing, and Love Lies Bleeding (John) was weighted down by overbusy bling, the McLachlan work is simple and elegant.
For one thing, Grand-Maître has come up with a cohesive scenario as his through-line. In his program notes, the choreographer refers to "the deeply spiritual odyssey of a woman's life." The ballet tracks through innocence, youth, attraction to the opposite sex (which is set to the title song), first love, a lover's cruelty, finding love again and losing it, mature love and, finally, a celebration of life.
Another through-line is sisterhood and female empowerment. In both acts, Grand-Maître includes sections whose movement portrays sassy women proud to be in their own skin, but who also have tenderness for each other.
Grand-Maître is at his best, choreographically speaking, when he has a strong focus. Two series of linked scenes are good examples.
"Bring on the Wonder," a pas de deux performed by Mariko Kondo and Mark Biocca, depicts the passion of first love. Kondo seems to give in to Biocca, continually collapsing and surrendering into his arms.
Their second duet is set to "Vox," where the rapture is ramped up, and this ecstasy is mirrored in the swirling couples that travel ceaselessly across both the front and rear of the stage.
Ending the first act is the erotic "Ice," where Biocca is enticed by three very sexy sirens (Emily Collier, Victoria Lane Green and Tara Williamson), and while he does keep returning to Kondo, he ultimately abandons her.
Similarly strong in the second act, is the series that begins with "Illusions of Bliss," a pas de deux of true love performed by Galien Johnston and Kelley McKinlay. Here they are both equals, and the partnering and lifts convey an evenly matched couple.
It is, alas, too good to last. In "Hold On #2", Death is portrayed by three men (Patrick Doe, Davidson Jaconello and Blair Puente) who continually attempt to lift and carry McKinlay away. The movement grows in frenzy until they finally succeed. "Good Enough" is the most poignant moment in the ballet, as Johnston's grief is eloquently conveyed through her still but sorrowing body.
Grand-Maître does have a tendency to be repetitive, but he also makes his accomplished dancers look very good. The continual horizontal travels of the Greek chorus, from stage left to right, and vice versa, is clearly meant to portray the passage of time, but the incessant movement does get a bit overmuch. Nonetheless, the choreography, taken as a whole cloth, shimmers in beauty.
Adam Larsen's video design is also gorgeous, with its clever mix of video and animation. The whole cyclorama (back) wall of the stage is in play for larger-than-life images. Whether awash with a beautiful aquarium ("Drawn to the Rhythm"), playful ice cream cones ("Ice Cream") or a swath of richly gold drapery ("Angel"), Larsen has created a visual feast.
Pierre Lavoie's precise lighting dovetails beautifully with both the movement and the projections. Where the design falters is in Paul Hardy's costumes, which appear to have no definition. For the most part, they seem to be ever-changing wisps of cloth.
Overall, it seems that the McLachlan songbook has inspired Grand-Maître to create crisp, clear and incisive movement. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy should serve the company well.
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
- Alberta Ballet
- Choreography by Jean Grand-Maître
- Music by Sarah McLachlan
- At Southern Jubilee Auditorium
- in Calgary on Thursday
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy continues in Calgary through May 7, and tours to Edmonton May 12 to 14.