Alberta Ballet presents an enduring portrait of Joni Mitchell

A moment from Alberta Ballet's The Fiddle and the Drum. Photo: Charles Hope

A decade ago the Alberta Ballet was mapping out the program for its 40th season and Artistic Director Jean Grand-Maître was looking for a showstopper.

“It was a year when we wanted to really be on the map. We wanted to get some national attention and attract the media and involve the community,” the Gatineau ex-pat said.

“I was thinking then about a big Beethoven symphony with full chorus and all that when a friend of mine, a dance critic in Toronto, suggested Joni Mitchell.”

The friend thought Mitchell was a perfect fit for a project. She was born in Fort MacLeod, Alberta and grew up in Saskatchewan. She was also a visual artist who liked artistic challenges.

Grand-Maître decided to write her a letter through her agent. It got through.

“Later I found out I was very lucky she even opened it. Her house is full of unopened letters everywhere.

Joni Mitchell. Photo: Emma Liu

“It was a picture of a ballerina in her tutu that got her attention. It was taken in a neighbourhood of Calgary that very much resembled the neighbourhood she grew up in in Saskatoon. That picture intrigued her,” he said in an interview with ARTSFILE.

Grand-Maître is pretty good at The Pitch. He presented a vision of a ballet with world class dancers and designers that used her lyrics.

“She loved the idea that it would all come together in one production and she agreed to do it.”

The two met in Los Angeles to start mapping out the project. He said he suggested a ‘bio ballet.’

“She said that sounded too frivolous. Joni was (and is) still much like she was in the 1960s, very engaged with social issues, moral issues, psychological issues, corporate greed, all these causes remain very dear to her.

“She said that while we had the stage we should do something that will have more meaning for the times.”

The concept was to use her music to talk about ecological disaster, environmental neglect and the idea of combatting fascism. The war in Iraq was raging at the time and that disturbed her deeply, he said.

At the time, Mitchell was creating a lot of new art based on these themes and preparing to record a CD.

They started to draw upon lesser known works from the 1980s and ’90s that were “dismissed from her repertoire.” These songs suddenly took on a whole new life, Grand-Maître said.

In those days, “everybody wanted happy songs on the radio. These songs are about the environment and what was going on and nobody wanted to hear those things.”

But they were prophetic. “These things are really happening (today).” In Ottawa, the rivers are flooding; out west, “we spend our summers in smoke.”

Mitchell said she wanted the ballet to inspire people to care about and develop compassion for the Earth.

The most astonishing thing was that once Mitchell committed to the project she was involved full on.

“I couldn’t believe it. There is a lot of hope in Joni. She believes in miracles.

“Ballet is how we contrast what humanity has done at its worst and what we can do at our best through the beauty of the dancers and the dance. She loved that contrast.  That’s also why her songs are so universal. They have beauty and the best and the worst in the same songs.

“She was singing about paving paradise way before Greenpeace was started. and she has never hung her beads.”

Mitchell got down to business, he said, and soon enough was designing the sets.

“This is how lucky I was. Since then I have worked with many artists and most of them were touring artists and very busy.

“Joni wasn’t touring. She was coming back after 12 years of mostly retirement. I didn’t know when I approached her that she was writing songs and about to record new album called Shine (2007). The result was the ballet actually premiered three new songs.

“It was incredible. We were laughing all the time, laughing and enjoying the collaboration.

“She was a joy to work with. She gives a lot of freedom to counterpoint her ideas any way you want. She has called it one of the most exciting projects of her life. That’s  humbling.”

In addition to the set, she worked on the libretto of the ballet. She sequenced the songs for six months before she was happy with the soundtrack. She also worked on a video installation (part of the set design as well).

“It’s a work of art too. She edited that for six months as well. And she edited the film of the ballet for another six months. She stayed with us for almost two years. She had the last smoking room ever at the Palliser Hotel.”

After that commitment, it’s not surprising that she has been in close contact on this remount, he said.

The day before this interview, the two were talking, Grand-Maître said.

Sadly, “she doesn’t have strength to travel yet. We were hoping she would be able to come to Ottawa and she wanted to do it.

“Psychologically, she is 100 per cent Joni. Brilliant and in a very good place but her physical therapy is on-going.”

Mitchell suffered a stroke three years ago and was in a coma for three months Grand-Maître said.

So “she gets tired.” 

Mitchell was found by her cleaning lady three days after suffering the stroke. 

“It was bad moment in her life, but Joni Mitchell is built like a tank,” Grand-Maitre said. “She survived polio and everything imaginable. It’s her powerful sense of purpose that keeps her going.”

He saw her not too long after she left the hospital and she was still trying to remember things and was searching for connections.

“Now she calls me on the phone, and it’s the same Joni. The transformation is amazing.”

Alberta Ballet has done six of these “portrait” ballets, working with the music of Gordon Lightfoot, Gord Downie, kd laing, Elton John and Sarah MacLachlan. But the Joni Mitchell ballet was the key to all the others, he said.

“The portrait ballets which started with Joni, became a new audience portal for us. They say Nutcracker is a portal to bring children to the performing arts. Joni became a portal for a new audience. Elton John, who is a big Joni fan, he wanted to see the ballet Joni created so we sent him a tape and asked if he wanted to work with us and he said absolutely.

“Her pedigree, her respect in music industry opened doors to so many other singer-songwriters. Joni taught me how to create these ballets. She was my mentor.”

The Fiddle and the Drum is a massive ballet. There are 30 dancers involved. There are large ensemble sections in the piece. Some songs are en pointe and some are contemporary.

Choosing the music was a months-long process, he said. One of the songs included is called The Beat of Black Wings.

Because, “she thought of the ballet as a play with characters, some songs” reflected the characters. Others are more abstract.

“I had this amazing mentor with me for two years and it changed my life. She’s a friend. All the portrait ballet subjects have become pretty good friends. Joni became almost like an older sister to me.

“We understand each other and are able to laugh together. She has the best sense of humour on the planet.

He said the project, in a way, brought him back to creating because artistic directors spend a lot of time on the business of companies.

He also said he hasn’t been able to repeat the depth of experience in the other portrait ballets. Of the six this one is his favourite still.

That doesn’t mean he’s not still doing them. Right now Alberta Ballet is negotiating with the David Bowie estate about a seventh project. “If I am talking to them today it’s because of Joni Mitchell.”

“One of most admirable things about her career is how she kept changing and going in other directions without consideration for mercantile imperatives.

“She changed my life. She also changed Alberta Ballet and took us to another level.”

That courageous artistic integrity is what has garnered her such respect, he believes.

“I was at her 75th birthday gala in Los Angeles. There were great artists there. I have never seen a Canadian get homage like that in L.A. I got to sit at her table. On my right was Graham Nash, James Taylor and David Geffen.

“Representatives of Canada’s Indigenous peoples gave her a name that night. They called her Sparkling White Bear Woman. That’s exactly who she is.”

Alberta Ballet presents Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum
Where: Southam Hall
When: May 15 & 16 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.