Ballet inspired by k.d. lang impresses artist at opening

Singer k.d. lang is so proud of the Alberta Ballet's artistic take on her prairie upbringing, she wants to see it performed outside the province.

Balletlujah! opened May 3 in Edmonton and closes in Calgary on Saturday

Alberta Ballet artists Hayna Gutierrez and Tara Williamson perform during the world premiere of Balletlujah! in Calgary. (Paul McGrath/Handout/Canadian Press)

Singer k.d. lang is so proud of the Alberta Ballet's artistic take on her prairie upbringing, she wants to see it performed outside the province.

Balletlujah! opened May 3 in Edmonton and is to close in Calgary Saturday after eight shows.

The company's artistic director and choreographer, Jean Grand-Maître, says the 51-year-old vocalist attended the premiere and loved it.

"She wanted it to really go out on tour," he says. "And her manager was there and he said he was very touched from the very beginning of the ballet and he would love to help us bring it out."

If the show ends up elsewhere, it won't be any time soon. The company is booked solid with other events for the next two years, says Harry Paterson, Alberta Ballet's director of production and touring.

He says presenters from California and Texas in the Calgary audience will be trying to determine whether a dance based on lang's life would be a hit south of the border.

Grand-Maître says Balletlujah! is the first ballet he knows of with a gay love story. When he was crafting the piece and going through lang's music, he realized most of her songs were about love and so her ballet would be too.

A love story between 2 women

"I said, 'OK, it can't be a man and a woman because it's k.d. lang, and I'm pretty sure when she's singing love songs she doesn't see Brad Pitt in her head,"' said Grand-Maître with a laugh.

"So, I said, 'OK, we're going to do a love story between two women and it was not about being gay, or becoming gay. It wasn't about that. It just happens to be two women and it's a pure love."'

The story focuses on a young woman in a Prairie town who falls in love at a barn dance. She moves with her lover to the big city but their relationship sours. Heartbroken, the heroine returns home and finds love again.

Grand-Maître says lang consulted on the project and was initially nervous because she didn't know anything about ballet. He reassured her.

"It's not going to be skinny ballerinas on pointe shoes ... think of it as performance art."

Far from such classics as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, the piece puts some of the dancers in cowboy boots and high-heel shoes. At one point, a pint-sized pooch even makes an appearance.

Video projections provide a stunning backdrop of swaying wheat fields, starry nights and fluttering flocks of birds. A slow-moving motorcycle carrying the two lead characters also roams over rolling foothills.

Inspired by Consort, Alta.

The company sent a film crew to capture shots around Consort, Alta., where lang grew up. Grand-Maître says he sat beside lang's 90-year-old mother during the premiere and she was mesmerized.

"All the time she kept holding her hands and saying, 'I know that tree. I know that church. Isn't that the old farm?"'

He says some people may find the visual effects dizzying, but the ballet is trying to build a new and younger audience. It has already done tributes to the music of Joni Mitchell, Sarah McLachlan and Elton John.

The so-called pop or "portrait" ballets are bringing in people who have never been to the ballet before, he says. Lang's legion of fans are the latest to give the art form a shot.

The show features 16 of her songs, including Big Boned Gal and Constant Craving. It wraps up with her soaring version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.

Grand-Maître describes lang as an extraordinary singer, and says opera singers and pop stars have confided in him that they consider her voice one of the greatest of her time. The ballet's dancers must have heard her music 700 times during rehearsals.

"And we never got tired of hearing it. Her voice just seems to put air under us."

Fantastic to dance, say twin dancers

Alexandra and Jennifer Gibson, two twin dancers from Calgary performing in Alberta Ballet's production of Balletlujah!, say the Prairie love story set to lang's music is fantastic to dance to.

They said not only does the audience get to experience the beauty of her music, but also the scenery of Alberta projected behind the dancers.

"And some of these scenes are straight out of backyard growing up, and they just work so well together — her music and the Prairies — and she has such a powerful voice it gives you so much energy when you are on stage dancing to it," said one twin in a CBC Calgary Eyeopener interview.

"She inspires all of us to keep going even when we're extremely tired by the end."

The twins said both their parents were big fans of lang, so they have listened to her music for many years.

"You can get goosebumps just listening to the music, and it's pumped into the Jubilee Auditorium and it just fills that theatre."

The twins said lang came back stage and congratulated the dancers after opening night.

"She was over the moon about it."

With files from CBC News