REVIEW | VANCOUVER 2010 WINTER OLYMPICS :: THE CULTURAL OLYMPIAD ::: JONI MITCHELL’S «THE FIDDLE AND THE DRUM»

QUEEN ELIZABETH THEATRE, VANCOUVER, 22 JANUARY 2010

THE MAN OF THE HOUR: Jean Grand-Maître a few minutes before the show

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23 JANUARY 2010

THE MERCHANDISE:

(I FINALLY HAVE A JONI MITCHELL AUTOGRAPH!)

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The spectacular collaboration between Joni Mitchell and Jean Grand-Maître, The Fiddle and the Drum, opened the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad on 22 January 2010.

This was a major event; the city’s bigwigs were all there (I spotted Trevor Boddy of recent Vancouverism fame,  artist Paul Wong, and a kilted mayor Gregor Robertson at the interval).

Before the performance, VANOC’s CEO. John Furlong, welcomed us in both official languages to the start of 60 days of culture that will accompany the games.

Unfortunately, the woman of the hour was at home in L.A. convalescing. She had really wanted to attend and waited until the last moment to tell Jean Grand-Maître that she wouldn’t be attending.

Grand-Maître gave a pre-show talk about the genesis of the ballet and his collaboration with the “genius” that is Mitchell. Afterwards, I asked him to send Joni “healing vibes” from Vancouver:

The performance that evening was the third time we’d seen the ballet (we went again the following evening for a total of four performances so far; we can’t get enough of it).

We have enjoyed following the ballet’s  trajectory since it debuted in Calgary on 8 February 2007 as Dancing Joni & Other Works.

Looking back on that magical evening on a snowy Calgary evening brings back goose bumps of pleasure and excitement.

That initial performance was simply magical. To hear Joni’s lyrics and watch as Alberta Ballet moved to her beats was simply unforgettable.

The highlight (thrill, really) in Calgary was hearing Joni’s three then-new songs, “If I Had a Heart I’d Cry,” “If,” and a new version of “Big Yellow Taxi.” After a supposed retirement, it was thrilling to hear new music from Joni once again.

That show made us converts to the magic of dance. The music that evening was nice and loud and the sheer inventiveness of the choreography and the precision of the dancers entranced us.

The addition of visual images from Joni’s latest work of art, Green Flag Song, thrilled us. Joni was back, and in a big way.

Dancing Joni marked an entirely new direction in Joni’s four-decade-long career.

The socially relevant messages contained in the ballet’s songs come from a catalogue of albums spanning the years 1969 to 2007 and are a testament to this one woman’s longevity as a prophet to her times.

In Jean Grand-Maître, she seems to have found her match in an entirely new field, yet one that must have been enticing to her (she has often spoken of her love of dancing on the “wrong side of town” as a teen in Saskatoon)

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ALL I WANT

Alive, alive, I want to get up and jive

I want to wreck my stockings in some juke box dive

Do you want — do you want — do you want to dance with me baby

Do you want to take a chance

On maybe finding some sweet romance with me baby

Well, come on

– Joni Mitchell, “All I Want” (1971)


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When we heard that an expanded version of the ballet, commissioned by the Cultural Olympiad, was playing at the Banff Centre for just one night, we hopped on the plane again and made another pilgrimage to Alberta.

The contemporary follies of mankind, from our aggressive and warring nature to the seemingly unstoppable destruction of our environment, will be studied through the interactive use of music, the visual arts, and dance. Joni Mitchell’s poetic metaphors – in her music and her artwork – serve as a setting for the ballet. The dancers of Alberta Ballet at times give life to some of the characters depicted in her lyrics and in her artwork. At other times they work in counterpoint, abstractly illustrating our fragile potential for the creation of beauty.

Joni Mitchell is in the process of adding another four compositions to the soundtrack, transforming a 48-minute ballet into a full evening work. Be one of the lucky few who will have the chance to see this new, full length version of a ballet which has rocked the international arts world. A question and answer discussion will follow the performance with the creative team in attendance on-stage.

– from The Banff Centre, The Fiddle and the Drum

Now titled The Fiddle and the Drum, the Banff Centre performance on 5 September 2008 was “up close and personal.”

Joni was there and took questions from the audience after the performance. I got to ask the first question:

“I know you loved dancing as a teen and I was wondering how much input you gave to Jean and the dancers?”

She replied that it was Jean’s dance and that her direct involvement was rather minimal, but that she always offered suggestions when they came to her.

She then gave an example. At a certain point in the ballet, she said, she thought the dancers should move in a more “suggestive” manner. Her idea for the move she had in mind came from an exercise she performs.

“Do you want to see it?” she asked the audience. She then got up and did “the move” and the audience roared with approval.

It was an amazing night and we felt very privileged to watch the ballet expand to its present form.

And then, the Olympics, and finally, the ballet would come to us …

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GREEN FLAG SONG

One major complaint about the performances since the ballet’s début: from the Banff performance on, the staging of the ballet’s set has been truncated.

In Calgary, the stage was set with the giant circle behind the dancers, as it is now.

But back in Calgary, the ballet also had two additional, rectangular, screens on which images from Joni’s Green Flag Song series appeared. These were haunting images and made a huge impact on the tone of the performance.

There are no photos on the Internet of the original stage, so, to illustrate, I’ve made a photo mashup of a photo by Charles Hope and shots from NPR to recreate what we saw in Calgary:

Here are a couple of photographs of Joni with some of her disturbing (and hence, appropriate to the ballet) Green Flag Song triptych panels:

BELOW | 2006.11.10 :: JONI IN MIYAKE @ THE LEV MOROSS GALLERY FOR GREEN FLAG SONG

Source: jonimitchell.com

At The Banff Centre I thought perhaps the stage was simply too small to accommodate these two beautiful side panels. In the recently (“just in time for Olympics”) renovated Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, I was simply disappointed.

I don’t know if cost considerations or technical difficulties prevented the troupe from staging the complete visual show, or what the issue was. I think the ballet as an entity suffers from this major change that few have commented on.

It’s ironic that, whilst the ballet has gotten longer, the imagery has been edited. (Grand-Maître said that Joni spent three months arranging the images for the ballet.)

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Nonetheless, we were thrilled to be there for the launch of the Cultural Olympiad.

There was a palatable air of excitement and even nervousness in the air opening night. We felt that perhaps the dancers weren’t quite “en pointe” for that show. Expectations were certainly high, and all of those dignitaries in the audience might have affected the flow.

The next night’s performance, however, was spectacularly spectacular.

Let me state that I’m not knowledgeable about dance; this ballet, though, has made me a convert.

Having seen the performance four times, I’ve come to the conclusion that, for dance, I prefer to be seated in “the gods” so that I can see the choreography from way up high.

Seated where we were that second night in Vancouver, we could see the amazing precision of the troupe and felt that it may have been the best performance of the four that we have seen. It was breathtaking.

Jean Grand-Maître’s choreography is without equal, I’m told, and I believe it. He has a unique vision for his dancers and his connection to Joni’s music is very obvious in all that he has choreographed here.

(It’s not surprising that he was chosen to direct the opening and closing choreography for the 2010 Winter Olympics … I wonder what he has in store for the world to watch on the 12th and 28th of February.)

I sense that the dancers enjoy dancing to Joni’s music; it’s evident in all of the effort they put into all of those very difficult moves that Grand-Maître puts them through. He called the show “a display of athletic aestheticism,” and that pretty much sums up the dancers’ commitment to the show’s twin objectives: to entertain and thrill us whilst making us question the direction that the world has taken.

My favourite pieces from the ballet are “Woodstock” (very sexy moves with a slightly retro feel), “Ethiopia” (a highly inventive interpretation of that sad song’s message), and the amazing anti-war song, “The Three Great Stimulants”

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THE THREE GREAT STIMULANTS

I picked the morning paper off the floor

It was full of other people’s little wars

Wouldn’t they like their peace

Don’t we get bored

And we call for the three great stimulants

Of the exhausted ones

Artifice, brutality and innocence

Artifice and innocence …

– Joni Mitchell, “The Three Great Stimulants” © 1985 Crazy Crow Music BMI

The three great dancers that performed that song and stimulated me the most: Yukichi Hattori, Davidson Jaconello, and Nicole Caron:

Bravo!

But, it’s rather unfair to single out just three performers.

The ballet is a vision of the zeitgeist we find ourselves in and everyone on stage deserves a big round of applause for their artistry.

Judging from the curtain calls both nights, Vancouverites seemed to have loved and appreciated their efforts.

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THE PROGRAMME:

Song Album Year
1 THE FIDDLE AND THE DRUM CLOUDS 1969
2 SEX KILLS TURBULENT INDIGO 1994
3 PASSION PLAY (When All the Slaves Are Free) NIGHT RIDE HOME 1991
4 THE THREE GREAT STIMULANTS DOG EAT DOG 1985
5 SHINE ° SHINE 2007
6 WOODSTOCK ° TRAVELOGUE 2002
7 FOR THE ROSES TRAVELOGUE 2002
INTERVAL
8 THE REOCCURRING DREAM ° CHALK MARK IN A RAIN STORM 1998
9 ETHIOPIA ° DOG EAT DOG 1985
10 SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM NIGHT RIDE HOME 1991
11 THE BEAT OF BLACK WINGS CHALK MARK IN A RAINSTORM 1998
12 IF I HAD A HEART I’D CRY SHINE 2007
13 IF SHINE 2007
14 BIG YELLOW TAXI [2007 Version] SHINE 2007
° added to the programme after the début of Dancing Joni

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Click here for Gail Johnson’s review in the The Georgia Straight’s

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“SHINE ON A HOPEFUL GIRL IN A DREAMY DRESS” (from “Shine”)


THE VANCOUVER 2010 WINTER OLYMPICS SUITE

JONI MITCHELL


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