Inspired by Elton John’s life, Alberta Ballet’s Love Lies Bleeding explores the perils of pop stardom—in a very pretty package.
Love Lies Bleeding came together, as so many eye-popping things do, on Valentine’s Day in Las Vegas. Sir Elton John had summoned the Alberta Ballet’s artistic director, Jean Grand-Maître, to the Silver State to discuss building a show around his music. And when the Rocket Man calls, you answer.
“I hadn’t set everything out initially because I didn’t want to insult Elton,” recalls Grand-Maître. The choreographer wanted to collaborate with the British superstar, as he had with Joni Mitchell, with whom he created the acclaimed 2007 songbook ballet The Fiddle and the Drum. A Joni Mitchell devotee, Sir Elton had heard about the pairing from his personal manager. While on tour in Calgary in September 2008, the performer invited Grand-Maître and eight of Alberta Ballet’s dancers to his show at the Saddledome, where he dedicated a song to them.
Two months later, sensing an opening, Grand-Maître fired off an email, requesting the right to create a dance extravaganza to a soundtrack of the songs John wrote with lyricist Bernie Taupin, from “Bennie and the Jets” to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” Sir Elton responded within minutes, and asked him to Vegas.
“When I met with his agent the day before, he said ‘Elton is so happy you’re here and can’t wait to hear your pitch.’ I stayed up all night—it’s easy to stay up all night when you’re in Vegas—and then I met Elton the next afternoon and gave it to him.”
As Grand-Maître sees it, Love Lies Bleeding is “not so much an anatomy of Elton John’s life as it is an anatomy of pop stardom” and how inhumane it can be, just as The Fiddle and the Drum is less about Joni Mitchell than it is about the perils of war and environmental destruction. The day we talk, Grand-Maître and the show’s two principal dancers, Yukichi Hattori and Kelley McKinlay, are sprawled out on chairs in the bowels of the St. Lawrence Centre. They’re excited to be bringing the $1.2 million blockbuster—Alberta Ballet’s most expensive and most successful show to date, by far—to Toronto. (It premiered in Calgary and Edmonton in May 2010.)
Given Sir Elton’s widespread fan base, it’s hard to imagine a ballet with more touring potential, especially when the production in question pumps out so much crowd-pleasing eye candy. Love Lies Bleeding is a razzle-dazzle spectacular, a slinky, sequined goodie that contains demons cribbed from Sir Elton’s life: drug addiction, repressed homosexuality, the AIDS epidemic. Buff ballerinas bound and leap in barely-there jockstraps, roller skates spit flames. It’s Vegas, it’s Broadway, it’s a Pride parade. The acrobatic Hattori serves as a stand-in for Sir Elton—an avatar named Elton Fan—who begins the ballet in an abandoned theatre and travels from a baseball-themed production number to a tender duet with McKinlay that kicks off with a 45-second kiss.
As for the challenges of working with modern music that already has a strong hold over the popular imagination, the dancers aren’t worried. Though they have no bone to pick with classical pets such as Stravinsky, they’re happy to be part of the generation of performers who embrace populist Lion King–style productions.
“There’s an accessibility factor with this kind of show, hence its popularity,” says Hattori. “Communication with the audience is a lot easier, because there’s clarity with the lyrics. It’s not a blank slate.”
McKinlay, the David to Hattori’s Elton Fan—a wink and a nod to John’s real-life partner, Scarborough-born David Furnish—agrees. “When you hear Elton John singing ‘I’m a rocket man,’ you understand what you’re dancing to, which is such a different way of being onstage. You’re able to relate to the music right then and there.”
As for those who believe songbook ballets are the dance world’s equivalent of fast food, Grand-Maître offers up a very simple solution. “Pick the show you want to see,” he says, laughing. “Ballets like Elton John’s enable me to create a more risky repertoire.”
Grand-Maître envisions a string of songbook projects in Alberta Ballet’s future. Last spring, the company staged Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, a Sarah McLachlan–inspired work. Now his sights are set on Leonard Cohen (the junior Cohen, Adam, is facilitating), k.d. lang (she’s into it, schedule permitting) and Ziggy Stardust himself (Sir Elton’s agreed to drop Bowie a line). “After Love Lies Bleeding, anything’s possible,” declares Grand-Maître. “Who would have thought Sir Elton John would be interested in collaborating with what used to be considered a little prairie company?”