LOVE LIES BLEEDING choreographed by Jean Grand-Maître (Alberta Ballet). At the Sony Centre (1 Front East). Opens Tuesday (November 8) and runs to November 12, Tuesday-Thursday 7:30 pm, Friday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Saturday 3 pm. $30-$190. 1-855-872-7669. See listings.
When Sir Elton John calls, you answer the phone.
"At first I thought it was a joke," laughs Jean Grand-Maître, the artistic director of Alberta Ballet, about the 2008 phone call that gave rise to Love Lies Bleeding, his contemporary ballet based on the iconic pop star's life. The voice on the other end told him John was in town performing and would like to meet him before his sold-out show at Calgary's Saddledome.
As it turned out, the pop singer had heard about Grand-Maître's previous project, a ballet about Joni Mitchell (Joni Mitchell's The Fiddle & The Drum), and being a big fan of both ballet and Mitchell's work, wanted a copy of the show on DVD.
"That says a lot about the man," gushes the quick-talking Grand-Maître, "that he would come to Calgary and want to meet the local ballet company."
Sensing an opportunity, or perhaps just taking a hint, Grand-Maître wrote to John a few months later about creating a ballet based on his life and music. The response was nearly immediate, and the next thing Grand-Maître knew, he was on a flight to Vegas for an afternoon brainstorming session with the man himself.
"What's special about these pop ballets is that they're collaborations. The artists let us into their world in a very private way so we can understand their music. As soon as I sat down in Vegas, Elton wanted to know exactly what my vision was. It was probably the most important pitch of my life."
John was so impressed that he withdrew the rights to his songs from an American ballet company and awarded them to Grand-Maître instead.
"He thought we had the balls to do it! He wanted a company that could be provocative, and not afraid of darker themes. He wanted us to use his life story to educate people about drug addiction, HIV/AIDS and homosexual repression. He wanted a lot of homosexual erotica - ‘Don't avoid it,' he said. ‘This is me, this is my life, this is my music - let's represent it truthfully.'"
For the choreographer Grand-Maître, the collaboration has opened up exciting new possibilities within a traditionally conservative art form.
"I became a ballet dancer, but growing up, my dream was to be on Broadway singing and tap dancing my way up a staircase. So this is my dream come true. I created something a little bit Vegas and a little bit Broadway, with some Bob Fosse in there, too. There's hip-hop and surrealistic imagery. I knew I had to be more jazzy, more honky-tonk, more eclectic, because Elton John is everything but the kitchen sink."
The ballet uses 14 John hits to tell the story of an avid fan who, in a Being John Malkovich-like twist, becomes an avatar for the singer and is forced to recapitulate the triumphs and tragedies that come with pop stardom.
"Pop stars like John, they've done it all. They've sung at the Oscars, they've won Oscars, they've sold a gazillion records. They don't need more profile, more branding or more money. For them, it's about trying something new, something unheard-of. They want to experiment."
Grand-Maître hopes to continue creating these pop-ballet portraits of contemporary music icons, and admits he has Leonard Cohen and k.d. lang in his sights. "My dream," he says, "would be to work with Peter Gabriel one day."
Well, with the Rocketman already under his belt, the sky really is the limit.