Alberta Ballet remounts acclaimed Joni Mitchell ballet

The ballet that launched Alberta Ballet into the international spotlight more than a decade ago — with the help of a Canadian icon — is returning home.

The Fiddle and the Drum, a collaboration between Joni Mitchell and the Alberta Ballet's artistic director, Jean Grand-Maitre, returns to Edmonton and Calgary in May.

The 2007 Alberta premiere coincided with Mitchell's return to music after a five-year hiatus and garnered attention from the New York Times and the BBC.

The 30-minute ballet was such a success, it was expanded into a full-length performance in 2008.

"I think it was one of the biggest game changers in our history," Grand-Maître said. "It was really an extraordinary time for the company's reputation, but also artistically because we were pushed by the genius of Joni Mitchell into directions we've never tried before."

The ballet — the first in a series of high-profile collaborations between Grand-Maitre and the likes of Elton John and k.d. Lang — attracted new audiences and experimented with new aesthetics, including video installations.

The project started with a letter from Grand-Maître to Mitchell, asking to collaborate on a ballet chronicling Mitchell's life, set to her music.

But she had other ideas.

Mitchell wanted the ballet to reflect the themes she'd been writing about on her yet-to-be released album, Shine. The music was animated by the war in Iraq and ecological devastation, a recurring motif in her art.

Grand-Maître handled the choreography, while Mitchell spent more than two years creating the video projections, set design and the soundtrack — including songs from Shine.

"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," she told the New York Times in 2007.

Mitchell's assessment of climate change, corporate greed and facism are even more profound today than when the ballet premiered, Grand-Maître said.

"It sends a chill up your spine because it's not going to happen 100 years from now. It's happening right now at this very moment when we spend half of our summers in clouds of smoke," he said.

Alberta Ballet

But to Grand-Maître, the ballet's challenging themes should not be confused with despondency. At its core, just as with Mitchell's art, there is an overarching sense of hope.

"She does believe in miracles, still," he said. "We wanted to contrast what we do at our best and what we can be at our worst. And in the end, it was very important that the light shine through."

The Fiddle and the Drum is on at Calgary's Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium from May 1 to 4, before heading to the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton from May 9 to 11.