« Previous | Culture Monster Home | Next »

Dance review: 'Joni Mitchell's The Fiddle and the Drum' by Alberta Ballet

February 26, 2010 | 12:24 pm


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.

Dance330 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.

Alberta2 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

Related story:

Elton John goes to the dance with Alberta Ballet

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

Comments () | Archives (12)

If one of two of the only good things Ms. Looseleaf can find is Mr. Doe's performance in the The Fiddle and Drum then let this reflect on the narrowness of opinion revealed in Ms. Loosleaf's review.

As a patron of the arts I have seen 'The Fiddle and the Drum' no less than 7 times and it continues to be and engaging, relevant and a cutting edge piece of art.

The piece pushes ballet boundaries while challenging audiences young and old alike to redefine ballet with a fresh new perspective.

Given some critics lengthy tenure in the ballet world, perhaps it's time they put away their dusty pointe shoes, retire their pens or, perhaps, stick with reviewing Swan Lake.

It brought the house down in Toronto. It was one of the most original pieces of performing art I've seen in years. Deeply moving. Totally disagree with the critic.

I respectfully disagree. I saw the Fiddle and the Drum at Royce Hall last night and was incredibly impressed. They have successfully integrated a range of dance, including hiphop, and innovations to create a range of dances with great choreography, a powerful message and talented performers to keep me completely engaged.

I saw the performance at The Barclay Theater and had mixed reactions. I certainly enjoyed hearing Joni Mitchell's music so well amplified and the dancing was pleasing to the eye. Yet I was not getting the connection with the anti-war theme (except for the occaisional use of guns, helmets and flags) nor with the power of the words of the songs. But I enjoyed each element for itself, which might not have been the intent. Perhaps dancing to strictly instrumental music would better allow this fine group of dancers to better hold their own.

I think this reviewer has more than one leaf loose. I have seen works by most of the major choreographers from around the world...and this piece is now in my top five. Mitchell's music was put to fantastic use and the choreography was stunning...as were the dancers. I guess all of us who gave it a prolonged standing ovation at the Barclay Thursday night were mistaken. I find it sad when one miguided reviewer can prevent people from seeing one of the best performances of a lifetime.

I greatly appreciated the dance not as an illumination of the music, per se, but as an underscoring of the fundamental humanity of Ms. Mitchell's work. Make no mistake, the arguments against the work are petty, and the overall experience is powerful. It's certainly a brave amalgam of media, and if it's not always perfectly integrated, at worst that creates an embarrassment of riches rather than an incongruity. I would like to point out a glaring error in the above article, the assertion that "much" of the songs are from the album "Dog Eat Dog". In fact, only two of the musical selections are from that album. Four are from her most recent album, "Shine".

I could not disagree more with this review.

When critics can ACTUALLY DO what they are criticizing, then I may lend them an ounce of credit! How many successful pieces has Ms. Looseleaf choreographed?

I loved this ballet: it is lyrical, it is beautiful, and I love that. She criticizes them for not being "edgy" enough, when what they are doing is just that... a piece about the horror of war that is beautiful to watch. The juxtaposition is brilliant. So this critic suggests they do the cliche grinding on the floor??? THAT is edgy??? She needs to get out more. And the "gratuitous goose-stepping" .... they only do handful of times, and it is VERY effective! I guess it was just not "edgy" enough for her.

Okay, Lance. You made your point. We're all sufficiently edge-u-cated.

So I am not allowed to have an opinion without a snide remark from you... and no elaboration on your part? Do you just scour the web to make snide comments? Have you even seen this performance?
Yes, I did make express my point... on a comment forum for people to make their point... on a review where the critic made her point very publicly. Actually, I am defending a whole company of talented artists who were dismissed in this review. All you seemed to do is make a snide remark with no constructive comments. So yes, hopefully I did edUcate you.

And the point you made, Lance, is the same tired notion that has been made by naive people for a very long time: that one has no right to criticize art unless one can do better than the artist being criticized. It is a completely false idea. In fact, criticizing and creating (or performing) require different sets of skills which is why there are plenty of very fine critics who are poor creators (or performers) - which is precisely why they are critics and not creators or performers. For example, dance critics do not need to have athletic bodies, while dancers do not need to have good writing skills.

Actually, Lance, I was commenting on your writing. It's called wordplay. You set it up beautifully. I just delivered the "punch" line.

Although I didn't see the performance, the green dancers in the photo do appear to be amazingly talented--leaping so high in the air. You can try to teach me to dance, Lance, but nothing's gonna learn this frog to jump.

This "Cate" must be an impostor. The one we know is an editor whose writing in English is consistently good. For example, she would never write "nothing's gonna learn this frog to jump".
If, however, you are the "right" Cate, then are you implying in your previous comment that Lance's reading comprehension is so terrible that he can't tell the difference between a snide remark and a compliment? Or are you suggesting that your writing in the comment to which he was responding was so unclear that no one could understand what you meant in it?
There is of course a third possibility. Your comments are so deep and profound that most of us are simply not smart enough to comprehend them. This must be it.


Recommended on Facebook

In Case You Missed It...


Explore the arts: See our interactive venue graphics


Tweets and retweets from L.A. Times staff writers.