When you attach the name Sir Elton John to an artistic endeavour, it’s sure to generate media attention.
In the case of Alberta Ballet’s choreographic spectacle Love Lies Bleeding, the frenzy is sufficient that it takes three tries to get choreographer Jean Grand-Maître on the phone. Doing his best to navigate the media frenzy on a single press day in Toronto, Grand-Maître is both surprisingly calm and keenly excited to talk about the work, given the non-stop barrage of journalists jockeying for his time.
“It’s the Elton John effect,” he laughs. “Whatever he’s associated with is always very successful. We’ve done ballets in collaboration with Joni Mitchell and Sarah McLachlan, but I’ve never seen coverage like this. It’s a great thing for ballet in general to have this kind of attention.”
Along with opera and symphony, ballet has struggled to attract new audiences in recent years as existing supporters literally die off. But the need to get new butts in seats has led artists like Grand-Maître to push established genres in entirely new directions.
“Ballet has changed since I was a dancer in the ’80s,” he says. “We often looked down on modern, jazz and hip hop back then. But hybrid works that blend multiple styles of dance are the way of the future. These more classical forms can be mysterious to a contemporary public, but Elton has shown us how to rescue them in his work.”
Grand-Maître first met the grand diva when John invited the company of dancers to a Calgary concert after pal Joni Mitchell talked them up. The pair got along splendidly, and shortly after Grand-Maître dashed off an email about the possibility of staging a piece based on his work. Within minutes he’d been invited to fly to Las Vegas to meet John in person and discuss things further.
“He wanted to be actively involved in the creative process, not just stamp his name on it,” Grand-Maître says. “He wanted it to be sexy and provocative and to explore all the themes that have touched his life, like addiction, coming out and the realities of people living with HIV. When you think about the fact Ricky Martin only came out last year, it’s quite amazing to think Elton was out in the ’80s. That could have ruined his career overnight, but it didn’t.”
True to the spirit of John’s life and over-the-top performances, the show is a virtual explosion of movement and colour. Boasting more than 200 costumes, lavish sets often inspired by John’s extensive personal art collection, and featuring dancers on Rollerblades and suspended from wires, the event plays more like a rock concert than a ballet.
“We’re encouraging the public to dress like their own inner rock star when they come,” Grand-Maître says. “It’s got a kind of energy and a sexiness people don’t usually expect in ballet, and a lot of the people coming are not traditional dance audiences.”
True to John’s wishes, the show is definitively homo, including a prolonged 45-second kiss between the two lead male dancers. For Grand-Maître the gesture is as personal as it is political.
“I had my first kiss to Elton John, so I certainly had that moment in the back of my mind,” he laughs. “It’s staged so that it’s the only thing lit in that moment, so the audience can’t not look at it. When we did it in Alberta it was a big risk. Three drag queens who were in the audience stood up and applauded and then so did everyone else. It was the first time I ever saw a standing ovation at intermission.”