When it comes to a dancer's life, pressure is second nature. There's the pressure to perform, the pressure to be perfect and, for the dancers of the Alberta Ballet, the added pressure of pleasing Joni Mitchell.
Since October, 27 professional dancers have spent 40 hours a week rehearsing for Dancing Joni and Other Works, a show that has proven to be one of the most physically difficult performances to date.
"When I found out I pretty much had to carry a dancer during an entire song, I knew I had to hit the gym and start working on my shoulders and arms," says dancer Blair Puente, 25, who is currently in his fourth season with the Alberta Ballet.
Nicole Caron's performance is no easier. Dancing for six out of nine of Mitchell's songs, the first-year professional is dealing with fast beats and quick time changes for much of her choreography.
"It's difficult but once I started to understand the music and saw how passionate Joni Mitchell was about it, it got easier," she says.
The iconic songwriter arrived in Calgary last week to work with the ballet on the show. Puente says her presence was intimidating at first, but has proven to be beneficial in helping dancers interpret her work. For many of the young dancers, Mitchell belongs to their parents' generation. It wasn't until artistic director Jean Grand-Maitre introduced the Canadian icon's music to the company; they discovered she was the woman behind the famous songs Big Yellow Taxi and River.
"We knew who she was but after we met her and had a chance to work with her . . . she's so amazing," says Caron. "She's just such an amazing performer, so open and easy going."
While some may consider the past few months to be gruelling for the dancers -- with Mitchell's watchful eye following every lift and every jump --it's actually the frantic backstage preparation at intermission that has many of them on edge.
Twenty-one of the 27 dancers use the 20-minute intermission to be covered in green body paint and artful designs to prepare for the Mitchell part of the show following a performance of George Balanchine's Serenade in the first act.
The dancers have worked with body paint before during shows like Dangerous Liaisons, but this is their first time applying it between performances and on a time clock.
Dancing Joni and Other Works debuts at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium on Thursday. It features the world premiere of The Fiddle and The drum, a performance set against a backdrop of Mitchell's music and artwork.