Alberta Ballet wins Houston's heart

Ballet rocks out to Elton John songs in intelligent, naughty, spectacular performance

Ballet rocks out to Elton John songs in spectacle that's naughty & fun

Alberta Ballet Love Lies Bleeding Elton John ballet
The Alberta Ballet pays tribute to Elton John in Love Lives Bleeding. Photo by Charles Hope
Alberta Ballet Love Lies Bleeding Elton John ballet
"Rocket Man" takes off in Alberta Ballet's tribute to Elton John. Photo by Charles Hope
Alberta Ballet Love Lies Bleeding Elton John ballet
What would a tribute to Elton John be without a session at the piano? Photo by JJ Thompson
Alberta Ballet Love Lies Bleeding Elton John ballet
Alberta Ballet Love Lies Bleeding Elton John ballet
Alberta Ballet Love Lies Bleeding Elton John ballet

Ballet and rock ‘n’ roll have long been fast friends. That might sound strange to some readers, but the two forms paired up as early as 1973, when Twyla Tharp choreographed Deuce Coupe to songs by the Beach Boys. The Joffrey Ballet premiered it, and continued building the “rock ballet” repertory 20 years later with Billboards, featuring dances by four different choreographers set to thirteen songs by Prince.

 I admit readily that I am intrigued by ballets set to rock and pop songs, a confession that makes ballet purists wince.  

I admit readily that I am intrigued by ballets set to rock and pop songs, a confession that makes ballet purists wince. Perhaps I am so fascinated because this is a form that has made considerable progress in just about four decades.

In October, I had the pleasure of watching Scottish choreographer Michael Clark’s stellar ballet Come, Been and Gone to songs by Bruce Gilbert and Wire, Lou Reed and Velvet Underground, and David Bowie. It is a milestone, and a sophisticated one at that.

Presented in conjunction with the David Bowie Is exhibition at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, the work demonstrates how much the rock ballet has come along. Clark has solved some of the peculiar challenges of setting classical movement to rock ‘n’ roll. These include continuity between individual songs, how to overlay classical phrasing on top of a steady beat, and when and how to avoid narrative and hokey storytelling. It is an elegant piece that deserves a wider touring network here in the States.

Successful rock ballet

Jean Grand-Maître’s Love Lies Bleeding for Alberta Ballet is yet another current example of a successful rock ballet, and it is without doubt a spectacle in every sense of the word. Made and premiered in 2010, it is eccentric, often naughty, sometimes poignant, and mostly a barrel of fun. Houston Ballet is presenting the Canadian company in this winning work, and if you are even the least bit adventurous, you shouldn’t miss it. (The final Houston performance is at 2 p.m. today (Feb. 1) at the Wortham Center).

 Grand-Maître’s story seems to focus on an Elton John fan falling into his personal dreams of stardom and passion.

 The first problem in any rock ballet is how to curate the score. What do you want to show the audience? What works best with the dancing you have in mind? And how many crowd-pleasers are you willing to include?

If you saw Dwight Rhoden’s flashy U2 celebration for his company Complexions Contemporary Ballet, you know how quickly too many hits can get old, especially if the choreographer has nothing original to say to viewers. Grand-Maître has focused on Elton John’s earlier oeuvre, which features Bernie Taupin’s highly poetic ruminations as lyrics. He settled on 14 songs, which makes for a two-act, two hour ballet that is never dull.

And, he has something to say about these wonderful melodies. There is a narrative, of sorts. Grand-Maître’s story seems to focus on an Elton John fan falling into his personal dreams of stardom and passion. Yukichi Hattori dances the role with complete commitment, and carries the success of the entire ballet on his gorgeous shoulders. It’s a dream role, to be sure, but an exhausting one. Hattori seems to cover every aspect of dance in two hours, from break-dancing to aerial ballet. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.

Kubrick meets Fosse

In terms of the scenario, there are numerous borrowings from pop culture, and they are intelligent and surprising. Some of the corps de ballet (both the men and the women) sport costumes that recall the codpiece-wearing hoodlums in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. They dance as if they were in a Bob Fosse musical, however.

 Rather than a ballet, I would call it a vaudeville-kaleidoscope, performed by classically-trained artists. Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting) is definitely the way to go to finish the piece.

There is a chorus of Marie Antoinettes that echo Jiří Kylián’s Black and White ballets, and even a roller-skating nun. It is an adult ballet, which is refreshing. There is a stunning trio of drag queens, two male/male pas-de-deux with passionate kissing, and other equally “wild” moments. This is, after all, a ballet celebrating the heyday of Elton John, namely, the 1970s and early 1980s.

If there is any problem, it is possibly that too much of the choreography in the first act comes in the form of emphatic, dense unison phrases for the corps members. This part needs a little weeding to my eye. The second act is better developed, with more offerings of small ensemble passages, duets, and overall, greater variety of movement. If Grand-Maître was going for a sharp contrast between the two acts, he certainly achieved it.

He also made a thrilling finale. Love Lies Bleeding is clearly conceived as an entertainment. Rather than a ballet, I would call it a vaudeville-kaleidoscope, performed by classically-trained artists. Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting) is definitely the way to go to finish the piece, and the ballet ends in a kind of bizarre and unforgettable, parade.