"She's my greatest idol."
This was said to me by a young woman of my acquaintance, Kiarra, a student at the Alberta College of Art and Design, as we were entering the Jubilee Auditorium to see Dancing Joni, a new ballet by Joni Mitchell and Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maitre.
She was referring, of course, to Mitchell, and I was pondering those words as I sat through the first ballet of the evening, Serenade by George Balanchine -- a gorgeous production in its own right, but bound to be lost in the excitement of the world premiere that follows it.
"She's my greatest idol."
That's saying a lot, in this day and age when idols are thrown up almost on a daily basis, when one can compete to become an idol on questionable reality shows, 15 minutes of fame foreshortened even to seconds, to milliseconds. How does an idol survive the test of time, spanning decades, even generations?
One way is for the idol to keep reinventing herself, and Mitchell has certainly done that in this collaboration with Grand-Maitre. The other way is to stay true to her convictions and honest in the communication of her philosophy. This, too, she has done, in presenting us with musical material from an album that was basically suppressed for 20 years.
She might have staged a greatest-hits show -- she has a few, you know. She could have made safe choices that wouldn't have ruffled the feathers of potential corporate sponsors. Yet she went with more difficult, challenging material and the result is a ballet that is not only entertaining, but causes us to examine and question our values, and the way we live our lives on the face of this beleaguered earth.
This ballet, this collaboration, is art at its best, at its finest, at its most transcendent. It's a true collaboration. Joni Mitchell's music would in itself have been enough to carry the day. But the music, along with the multimedia aspects of the production -- projections of her recent paintings, and a video projection of a myriad of images such as clouds from both sides -- elevate the ballet to an entirely different plane.
And then, of course, there's the dance. We grow complacent about those who live and work among us. Grand-Maitre is a very fine choreographer and certainly kept up his end of the collaboration. The dancing in The Fiddle and The Drum is vibrant, athletic and--I don't know if this helps describe it in a meaningful way, but I kept coming back to this word as I watched the ballet--human.
We were treated to the movement, in many different forms, of humanity as it struggles to survive the lamentable litany of war, dictatorships, environmental carnage -- all the things Mitchell wrote about so poetically on her suppressed album.
And yet, by the time the Big Yellow Taxi pulls up at the end of the ballet, we can't help feel that there can be joy to the human dance, and there may even be a long shot at redemption. And yet the clock is ticking.
I felt by the end of the ballet that I had witnessed the birth of a very important work of art. It was one of those rare moments when we feel honoured to have been part of the audience.
I wasn't alone in my feelings. Grand-Maitre and Mitchell hosted a question-and-answer session for about 100 art students, mostly from ACAD, following the performance. On my way there, I ran into Kiarra again and asked her what she thought of the production.
"Seeing this music danced -- this music that's been so close to me all of my life -- was really very exciting. And inspiring for my own work in creating performance installations."
To entertain an audience, to inspire a new generation of artists -- not bad for a night's work. In the Q and A session, I think all of us were touched by Mitchell's humility and generosity. A few things struck me, in particular her approach to music, which is essentially painterly in nature.
"Being a painter first," she said, "I approach music through colour, shape and form."
And then there's the Saskatchewan thing. She spoke a little of growing up in Saskatchewan, but I found it most interesting when asked about the way she moves, creatively, from painting to music, she spoke of that process in terms of "crop rotation." One plants a different crop as to replenish the nutrients in the soil, or one lets the field lie fallow, as we say. Who else but a Saskatchewan-born artist would employ such a metaphor?
As Mitchell sat and talked to these students, describing her time at that same art college, and describing beautiful images from her youth in Saskatchewan, I couldn't help but think that whatever else she may be -- icon, hall of fame songwriter, now the co-creator of an amazing ballet -- she is, after all, one of us.
Eugene Stickland is a Calgary playwright.