Saturday, May 8, 2010

Grande Expectations: Love Lies Bleeding Opens

Elton John touched down in Alberta on Thursday night, though the man himself wasn’t there.

The occasion was the world premiere of Love Lies Bleeding, an Alberta Ballet production, based on Sir Elton’s music, that bends the rules of genre and gender.

The over-the-top costumes, pop music — to which the performers often lip-synched — and the sometimes over-used multi-media staging may have snubbed the traditional tutu crowd, but it certainly justified the budget. Artistic director Jean Grand-Maître’s ballet was expensive — over $1-million, in fact. The song and subject choices also had people wondering.

And now the question is: Was it worth the risk?

The inspiration, subject, and artistic advisor to the production couldn’t attend opening night, though his blessing will determine whether the show travels. Presumably, Sir Elton will watch a recorded version of it and rely on feedback from his “people” who were there.

Grand-Maître, speaking before the curtain rose, admitted that “my knees are shaking” and said he had received flowers from Sir Elton that were so large they blocked his dressing room door. This isn’t his first experience with pop stars — he produced The Fiddle and the Drum with Joni Mitchell in 2007, and he’ll work with Sarah McLaughlin next year — but he’s still cautious. “Let’s hope this ballet has a future,” he told the VIP after-party crowd, “I think it has a chance.”

The ballet opens with Elton — played by the powerfully graceful and charismatic Yukichi Hattori — watching a younger version of himself, riding a tricycle in circles on stage, while old news footage plays on a giant screen behind them. These brief clips are interspersed with Elton’s performances and red-carpet appearances, apparently setting the scene for the decades through which he has lived.

Elton is dressed in a skin-tight, sequined, baseball suit. He leaps onto a smaller, rotating stage while the rest of the company, also in blue and white sequined baseball uniforms, flood onto the stage and dance around him. Bats are knocked against the platform while Elton raises his arms to the sky. It’s a weird start, and, perhaps because it’s opening night, a bit uncoordinated.
“We had those baseball bats and were saying to ourselves... OK, here we go,” dancer Melissa Boniface told me later, “Then the crowd’s reaction in the first few minutes was like — pow! — and we were off. We were really there. The crowd loved it.”

Grand-Maître is known for theatricality. Here, though, his flair has been both unleashed and harnessed, directed and trained onto a specific subject. Not that it’s an easy subject.

In the ballet, the most classical dances are between men, and involve love, sex, or both. Two heart-wrenching pas de deux tell the story of love and loss in a gay relationship. The first, set to the song Sixty Years On, was danced by Mark Biocca and Kelly McKinlay. (McKinlay also plays the title role on other nights.) There is a large sword/cross hanging above them as they dance, embrace, pull apart. The sword drops lower and one dancer drapes himself on it, and swings from it as well. The prop, and the song, make the AIDS theme very clear, perhaps too much so. It is, after all, a beautifully tragic piece of choreography on its own.

There are two other homo-erotic pieces, more in keeping with conventional ballet. The first, strangely enough, involves drag queens. Yes, three tall, muscular, heaving men in garish make-up, frilly black dresses and six-inch stilettos.

The second, set to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, includes a chorus of men in nothing but shiny gold loin cloths and white afro-wigs. And yes, it’s good. The choreography of the entire ballet is punchy, bold, athletic and compelling. Hattori is lifted, contorted, spun around en pointe, and dragged across the stage. The company was tight and expressive.

It is a liquid scene that had audience members shivering and nearly on their feet with applause. That piece left a moment of silence though, for all its ballet beauty, the dancers finished in an explicitly sexual position, shadowed onto the screen behind them for emphasis.

“I was surprised by how erotic it was,” said Alykhan Velji, who was in the audience with partner Jason Krell, “Calgary is a little gayer now.”

Drug addiction is the second demon in this story. That, too, is made literal when the words “Introducing the Inner Demons” appear on the screen behind three bowler-hatted Clockwork Orange types, who slink across the stage now and then, leaving clouds of white powder in their wake.

Despite the heavy themes and literal storytelling, there is some nuanced and compelling ballet here. The choreography is fresh, and this very international company is first-class. The music and costumes are seamlessly incorporated into both. The lighting and staging are also spectacular. Pierre Lavoie has gone easy on the lights, allowing shadows to play a role in each scene. At one point, an entire dance is seen only in tiny red lights, which are wound around the dancers, moving across a starry night sky. It is exquisite.

The audience was buzzing, both during the intermission and then again after the show and the three curtain calls.

The Calgary critics and audience loved it, of course. The ballet is a sensation by any standard, far beyond the scale of productions normally found here. But will Elton love it? Will the world?

Tickets for the opening night performance were sold out within hours of their release. Amongst the audience were Calgary’s elite. Mayor David Bronconnier, who said he loved the performance, declined to answer any questions about the on-going race to fill his seat. David Swann, Alberta’s Leader of the Opposition, chatted about health care and the mayoralty race but was clearly distracted by the buzzing crowd of boas at intermission. Pink boas and star-shaped sunglasses were sold in the lobby. Neither Bronconnier, nor Swann, nor provincial Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett, were spotted wearing them.

Board members of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle came as a group to see the show. They were suitably impressed, calling it fabulous and triumphant, but when asked if their company would mount the show there were head shakes and frowns, “No way!”

Later, I asked another of their group if it was true that they would not mount a show like Love Lies Bleeding. “I wouldn’t say never,” she said carefully, “It’s — bold.”

Love Lies Bleeding plays tonight and tomorrow in Calgary and May 11-12 in Edmonton

Published in National Post on May 8 2010, and on on May 7 2010


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