Alberta Ballet's Jean Grand-Maître is unveiling his latest pop-inspired dance production Fumbling Towards Ecstasy in Calgary.
Dubbed the ballet world's "king of pop" after recent creations set to the music of Joni Mitchell, Elton John and now Sarah McLachlan, Grand-Maître chuckles at his new nickname, but acknowledges that crafting his so-called dance "portraits" of contemporary singer-songwriters has been "one of the best journeys of my life."
"Today, creating art — I think if you look at the Cirque du Soleil or Robert Lepage — it's a fusion of ideas, it's a fusion of concepts," he told CBC News on Tuesday, ahead of the debut of his McLachlan-inspired work, which features 17 of her songs as well as her artwork.
"It's this new thing that's happening where people aren't afraid of fusing art forms together to come up with something new and interesting."
Ballets set to pop music are nothing new, of course, said the Quebec-born choreographer and artistic director, who has helped revitalize the Alberta Ballet since his arrival in 2002. He singled out previous works like James Kudelka's Ghosts (set to the music of the Beatles) and Billboards, the 1993 Joffrey Ballet production featuring music by Prince.
"Painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa was done a long time ago — mixing pop arts with classic arts. And we have a lot of learn from each other because there's so much different energy and the way we approach creativity is very different," he said. "[These] have been some of the best creations I've done and fulfilling for me."
'For me, Joni Mitchell is just as important to Canadian culture as Glenn Gould' —Jean Grand-Maître
These contemporary works, which are popular with newer audiences, help make it possible to pursue more avant-garde material, he said. They balance out Alberta Ballet's program, which for the 2011-2012 season, includes classics such as The Nutcracker, Cinderella and Swan Lake as well as modern works such as Wonderland and Love Lies Bleeding (the latter will also be toured to Vancouver).
"It's important to keep our art form relevant and alive. That's something that is always at the forefront of our thinking in dance: how to bring in new audiences and be relevant to people today," he said.
"For me, Joni Mitchell is just as important to Canadian culture as Glenn Gould."
And with so much musical talent in Canada and elsewhere, Grand-Maître forsees his series continuing after Fumbling Towards Ecstasy — citing Leonard Cohen, Peter Gabriel and k.d. lang as potential inspirational subjects — provided he can "do it with integrity and create ballets that are really challenging for dancers and for the audience."
Following its Wednesday debut, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy continues in Calgary through May 7. Its Edmonton engagement runs May 12-14.