When Joni Mitchell was asked to take part in a ballet about her life, she was unimpressed. But then she saw the chance to make a statement about something more important: the war in Iraq.
By Andrew Gumbel
Published: 09 February 2007
Joni Mitchell: The Ballet does not sound too promising an artistic concept. In fact, when Joni Mitchell herself first heard about it she didn't like it at all.
The legendary singer-songwriter was approached by the artistic director of the Alberta Ballet in her native western Canada about putting scenes from her life on stage to a soundtrack of some of her most familiar songs, like "Both Sides Now" and "Chelsea Morning". It would, in effect, have been a kind of song-and-dance This Is Your Life to pay tribute to one of Canada's famously rare artistic luminaries.
"Please forgive my somewhat imperfect English," the Québécois ballet director, Jean Grande-Maitre, wrote in a charming first letter introducing the idea. "I would really love to fly to Los Angeles and meet you personally for a very short moment." Mitchell was charmed enough to let him come and talk to her, and the two talked late into the night - a frequent habit of hers - about what he had in mind. "Everything centred around this blonde, blue-eyed ballerina from Australia, and it was sort of dancing my life," Mitchell later told the New York Times. "But I thought, that's not important right now." So Mitchell came up with another idea, centred on the twin preoccupations that have been gnawing at her, on and off, for the whole of her artistic career: the devastations being visited on the environment, and the horrors of war that the US has unleashed around the world, most recently in Iraq.
"Humbly I hope we can make a difference with this ballet," she told Grand-Maitre. "It's a red alert about the situation the world is in now. We're wasting our time on this fairy-tale war, when the real war is with God's creation. Nobody's fighting for God's creation." It's not entirely clear how humble Mitchell was - her one-time boyfriend David Crosby once said she was "about as humble as Mussolini" - but the upshot was that Grand-Maitre ditched five months of careful preparations for the 40th anniversary season of the Alberta Ballet and spent another four months reworking the concept from scratch.
And now the show, Dancing Joni: The Fiddle and the Drum, has just had its premiere in Calgary in a blizzard of publicity and anticipation. There are several reasons for the excitement, not the least of which is that Mitchell, at 64, still works at full tilt - perhaps harder than she ever has - and is clearly in no mood to be shelved as a Sixties relic whose best work is long behind her.
The show is a multimedia event, featuring not only Mitchell's music but also her rarely exhibited artwork. The artistic pieces, themselves multi-media works brooding on themes of war and destruction, determined the choice of songs in the show - many of them from her lesser known albums of the 1980s - and the songs, in turn, fed into the imagination of Grand-Maitre and his troupe of two dozen dancers.
Of the nine numbers in the show, two are entirely new recordings - her first in almost a decade. One, called "If I Had A Heart I'd Cry", is a lament for the ravages visited on the earth, set to a slow rumba beat. And the other is a reworking of Rudyard Kipling's famous poem "If...", which gets a jazz treatment including a piano performance by Herbie Hancock. (She did something similar to Yeats with her 1991 song "Slouching Toward Bethlehem".) As Mitchell told the Calgary Herald about her treatment of Kipling: "I changed the ending verse and I took out the archaic language." When she was asked if she thought Kipling would mind, she replied: "Oh no! I've made it better." The title song of the show, meanwhile, dates back to her second album, Clouds, from the late-1960s. She wrote "The Fiddle and the Drum" as a commentary on the war in Vietnam, seeing the fiddle as a symbol of peace and the drum as a metaphor for war. In the context of the ballet, it is also a starting point for a meditation on the nature of rhythm and the function it performs in different cultures. As Mitchell told The New York Times: "In Africa rhythm is used for a celebratory groove, but white rhythm doesn't have such an enormous vocabulary. It's basically militant."
The ballet is only the jumping off point of what promises to be a big year for Mitchell. She plans to make the two new songs the centrepiece of an album, her first collection of original new work since 1998's Taming The Tiger. The title of the album will be either If or Strange Birds of Appetite, after one of the lines on "If I Had a Heart": "Holy Earth/ How can we heal you/We cover you like blight/Strange Birds of Appetite/If I had a heart/I'd cry." Her art, meanwhile, is being showcased more publicly than ever. Mitchell fans know her painting almost exclusively through her album covers, many of them self-portraits in different guises. (For the 1994 album Turbulent Indigo, she cast herself as Vincent Van Gogh, complete with outsized overcoat and ear bandage.) Mostly, she has kept her prodigious output of painting to herself, housing it and exhibiting it only in her home in Beverly Hills or her cabin in the wilds of British Columbia.
But her work recently found a different audience in a show at a Los Angeles art gallery that proved so popular - despite an almost total absence of publicity - it was extended by a month. Entitled "Green Flag Song", the show featured a series of 60 prints inspired by an incident with Mitchell's television, which went on the blink and started emitted strange green colours that warped and obliterated the people on the small screen. Mitchell found it a compelling metaphor for war, revolution and torture.
Between the ballet, the art and the new album, Mitchell has been busy. (She describes the attention she has paid to each of her projects as "crop rotation".) It's a remarkable turn of events for a woman who, four years ago, publicly blasted the music industry as a "cesspool" and vowed never to have anything to do with it again. There's no simple explanation for her change of heart, except that she had something she felt compelled to express musically. "It's like this big funnel cloud is forming over her head that suddenly goes straight down like a little tornado," Grand-Maitre said recently. "It goes through her and these words, this music comes out." Mitchell herself offers a lighter explanation: "I tried to keep my legs crossed, but it didn't work." Whatever the reason, the outpouring of new work may be an opportunity for another reassessment of Mitchell. She's always commanded more respect than record sales - only one of her songs, "Help Me" (from the 1974 album Court and Spark), ever made it into the US top 10. But her work has also met its share of critical incomprehension, especially her more experimental, jazz-inspired albums like Mingus (1979) and Dog Eat Dog (1985). On the whole, the reputation of those albums has only grown over time, not least thanks to the legions of professional musicians among her most ardent fans.
Mitchell helped cement the very concept of the solo singer-songwriter in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and brought to the genre a lyrical and musical complexity that have rarely been matched or surpassed. It all happened more or less by accident. She was a penniless student at art school in Calgary in the early-1960s, imagining that the visual arts were her vocation, when she fancied she could make a bit of money by singing songs in clubs. When her fellow performers claimed proprietary rights over most of the numbers she knew, she decided she would write some of her own instead.
By the time she was 21, she had dropped out of college, become pregnant, and knew only that she wanted to sing "long tragic songs in a minor key".
She had in fact been writing music ever since she took up the piano at the age of seven. When she added the guitar to her repertoire, she became more daring in her chord arrangements, and adjusted the tuning on her strings to achieve ever more unusual effects. "Joni's weird chords", as many people have referred to them, are the backbone of her complex, multi-layered sound.
Her political consciousness was an important part of her artistic persona from the start. Her song "Big Yellow Taxi" became an anthem of the environmental movement ("They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot") and has been covered many times, including Bob Dylan. "Big Yellow Taxi" is perhaps the most familiar of her songs in the Alberta ballet show, too - it is given a jazzy Latin-flavoured reworking. The preoccupations of that song have proved almost prophetic, not least for Mitchell herself. As Grand-Maitre described before the show opening: "Half the trees in her BC property were just blown down. Polar bears are cannibalising each other up north. (Whole) species of animals and plants have been dying every day for the last two decades... She doesn't pretend to have the answers, she doesn't moralise... but she's asking questions that are very penetrating."