Dance review: 'Joni Mitchell's The Fiddle and the Drum' by Alberta Ballet
Say it ain’t so! At a certain point in the Southern California premiere of “Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum,” Jean Grand-Maître’s 2007 choreography for his Alberta Ballet troupe began to resemble the stultifying sameness of ice dancing’s “Tango Romantica,” seen at the winter Olympics in Vancouver this week. But since Grand-Maître, who's from Quebec, choreographed the Games’ opening and closing ceremonies, this might make some sort of sense.
Set to 13 Joni Mitchell songs — and against a backdrop of the singer-songwriter’s film and video projections – the 90-minute opus at the Irvine Barclay Theatre (repeating Friday and Saturday at UCLA’s Royce Hall) was all dressed up, albeit in leotards, trunks, war paint and a few romantic tutus, with no place to go. And while jukebox musicals have been all the rage, not all succeed. (Twyla Tharp’s train wreck, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” set to Bob Dylan tunes, comes to mind.)
It could be that not all music is meant to be danced. Sure, Mitchell’s songs have rhythm, occasionally funky, occasionally mellow, and her lyrics often cut to the bone, but to trot out every leap, pirouette and arabesque in the book, just because Grand-Maître can, does not necessarily translate into a cohesive evening.
Based on the title song, the ballet has been deemed antiwar, with dancers donning helmets, brandishing weapons and parading around with flags (“The Beat of Black Wings”). But it was all so, well, pretty. Where is the edge, the angst, the fear, the sadness, the rage – not to mention the sly wit – that can be found in works such as Kurt Jooss’ 1932 antiwar masterpiece, “The Green Table,” or William Forsythe’s 2005 Iraq indictment, “Three Atmospheric Studies,” dubbed the choreographer’s “Guernica”?
As Mitchell croons in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” "the center cannot hold."
Yes, the 28 dancers are gorgeous, adroit and athletic: “The Three Great Stimulants” featured an opening trio with a swoon-worthy Patrick Doe embodying the proud warrior; and the cast proved capable of stylistic change-ups, with African-infused moves on display in “Ethiopia” and rowdy club wrigglings highlighting “If.” Also appealing was the intermittent presence of the child, Clara Stripe (a young Joni, perhaps?), whose innocent twirlings gave hope amid Mitchell’s musings on planet destruction, the ills of advertising and an overall feeling of spiritual dearth.
But the safety-in-numbers’ approach grew thin, with endless unison lines, including gratuitous goose-stepping, the constant procession of fervent couplings, and a barrage of beseeching arms, finally dissipating the dance. Indeed, a disconnect to the music (hits include “Woodstock” and “Big Yellow Taxi," but much is from the poorly received '80s album “Dog Eat Dog”) tends to leave the viewer at arm’s length.
Mitchell fans – and they are legion – will enjoy her work, and dance aficionados might savor Alberta Ballet’s grit, but as deeply felt art, the well-meaning “Fiddle” misfires. This barre, sadly, has been lowered.
-- Victoria Looseleaf
“Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum,” Alberta Ballet. Repeats Friday and Saturday at UCLA’s Royce Hall, 8 p.m. $18.-$74., (310) 825-2101 or www.uclalive.org
Photos: Top, the Alberta Ballet company performs "If" and, bottom, Blair Puente, Kelley McKinlay and Travis Walker dance "The Beat of Black Wings." Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times