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The Alberta Ballet is performing “Fumbling Towards Ecstacy,” a portrait ballet based on the music of Sarah McLachlan Jan. 25. Photo by Don Lee
The Alberta Ballet is performing “Fumbling Towards Ecstacy,” a portrait ballet based on the music of Sarah McLachlan Jan. 25. Photo by Don Lee
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Pop music, ballet intersect to create new portraits

ESCONDIDO — In ballet, most of the composers today’s artistic directors and dance choreographers have to work with have been dead for more than 200 years. But for Jean Grand-Maître, the artistic director of the Alberta Ballet, he’s found a pulse.

Lately, he’s been talking to some of the composers for his newest productions — and they’ve been talking back. That’s because they’re still alive. As well known as say Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, these composers are just as eager to see their works come alive through dance.

“To be able to meet the composer is exceptional when you’re working on a dance creation,” Grand-Maître said. As of late, he’s turned the music of such pop icons as Joni Mitchell, Elton John and K.D. Lang into intimate dance portraits.

And his current production, “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy,” which features the music of Sarah McLachlan, comes to the California Center for the Arts, Escondido Jan. 25.

“Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” is the story of a woman’s life as seen through 14 of McLachlan’s songs, he explained.

“Women today somehow have to find a spiritual balance between family, marriage, work, career and children and so it’s much more challenging for them to find that balance,” he said. “And I think that Sarah, in her entire career, somehow seems to express what women are feeling today — modern women — and that’s what we wanted to capture with the ballet.”

Grand-Maître talked with The Coast News about mixing new and old in what many are calling “portrait ballets,” which are attracting younger crowds and more importantly, he said, introducing a new audience to the ballet.

Pop music tends to speak to our time, was there a message that you were looking to send using Sarah McLachlan’s music with this production?

With Joni it was about the environment and war, with Elton it was about sexual repression, it was about addiction. He wanted us to use his life to educate people. But with Sarah, she sings a lot about and writes songs about the female epochs and what women go through in their modern days. It’s changed a lot since their old grandparents lives. And so it was really about trying to create a portrait of her music and also of women’s rise today in these times and how it’s changed and how they can find spiritual balance in this change.

What story is it that you’re trying to tell in “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy?”

Being a man, I had to ask women — Sarah and the dancers, the female ballerinas, and I asked a lot of the women that I knew on staff and friends — what was important in a woman’s life. From these discussions, I created a narrative. And what came out of those discussions was a lot of talk about first love, first betrayal was very big, first child, loss — the themes that women go through in their lives that either make them stronger or weaker, but certainly that are very important moments in their lives.

In using pop music as the score for the production, what do you find shapes the choreography the most? Is the choreography based more on progressing the story forwards, the song lyrics or the music itself?

It’s a really wonderful process. Being a classical ballet choreographer I work with a lot of classical composers. And one thing we notice right away is the lyrics are very important. If you’re choreographing Mozart’s “Requiem” it’s all in Latin, so you don’t always have to worry about the lyrics as much as the context. But with pop singers…and these very famous songs and famous lyrics, we have to really inhabit that place.

Do you find that dancers today need to be more diversely trained to be able to perform in ballet companies?

Oh yeah. What’s exceptional is how open-minded (the dancers) are. Because in my duration, you have the ballet dancers and the modern dancers, and they all hated each other — ballet dancers thought modern dancers were not as good and modern dancers thought ballet dancers were old fashioned and smelled like mothballs or something…But young people today, there’s so much going on in their lives, they’re stimulated by so many different things all the time that they love the idea of doing “Swan Lake” and then the next day of working a contemporary ballet to Sarah McLachlan and maybe the day after really avant garde work. So they’re open to everything and I think that makes them all the richer for it.

Are portrait ballets becoming a growing trend with ballet companies?

We’re not the first to do them, that’s for sure. We’ve been very successful at it because we’ve had close collaborations with every singer/songwriter. And I think that’s the key to the success…The mix of pop and fine arts is an old story. You can think of Freddy Mercury singing with the opera singer Montserrat Caballé, and then you think of the whole Andy Warhol movement and how pop art and fine arts came together. There’s so much to learn from each other, especially because there’s so much immediacy in pop art. There’s something that captures its time unlike any other art form, and then the fine arts, they tend to create works that will last for centuries.

What is it that you’d like audiences to be able to take away from “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy?”

It’s about bringing people to the theater to discover dance, that’s very important, we see that 20 to 30 percent of the audiences who come to these productions have never seen dance before. So if we’re lucky, they’ll keep coming back, it’s amazing outreach. But it’s also a way to bring these people closer to the music. We can’t portray the entire catalog of Elton John or Sarah McLachlan…but what we try to capture, we want it to be honest and to portray their music in a very sincere way that they are pleased with it. And so far it’s been a very good run.

When: Jan. 25, 7:30 p.m.

Where: California Center for the Arts, Escondido

Tickets: $20 – $65;