Jean Grand-Maître, the artistic director of the Alberta Ballet, was surprised as anyone to get a cold call from Elton John’s road manager, inviting him to a Calgary concert last autumn — backstage pass included. With six of his dancers in tow, they glissaded to the Saddledome and were treated to extraordinary hospitality.
“Elton is a very gracious gentleman,” says Grand-Maître. “He dedicated a song to us at the concert and met all of us backstage. He told us that he had had dinner with Joni [Mitchell] the week before. She raved about her experience creating The Fiddle and the Drum with Alberta Ballet which made him interested in working with us.”
Grand-Maître’s new oeuvre may be working with famous musicians, however the aesthetic for this new work in progress is intended to be completely different.
“I see drag queens and rock and roll, and I want to go to a place that makes us a little bit uncomfortable — the darker side of what happens when we turn artists into pop music deities,” Grand-Maître remarks.
Deep in the research phase of this project, Grand-Maître is devouring biographies and documentaries about Elton’s life and occasionally flying to meet the man in person in order to get to know him better.
“I think this is going to be a cabaret/spectacle more than a ballet,” Grand-Maître muses. “It will be the most homosexually themed ballet I have done, delving into Elton’s struggles with his sexual orientation, his addictions and his triumphs.”
Triumph is a thing Grand-Maître knows about. Although modest about his success, he has taken a regional ballet company and turned it into an international success in just seven years. In addition to his artistic duties at the Alberta Ballet he recently was appointed choreography director of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.
On the heels of the Winter Olympics the new Elton John ballet will premiere in Calgary and Edmonton in May 2010. Grand-Maître says, “It is going to be successful and not something audiences will be expecting to see. I also want to break a lot of prejudices with respect to contemporary ballet. It is not a ‘dumbing down’ of classical ballet — high art and pop culture have been interacting for centuries.”