No Dress Rehearsal, This Was My Life
Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maître’s Tragically Hip ballet ‘All of Us’ – Honours Gord Downie
Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maître has made a reputation for himself with his inventive choreography and signature portrait ballets. 2017 the Alberta Ballet did Gordon Lightfoot (Our Canada), which was a birthday ballet for Canada. Prior to that; K.D Lang, Elton John and Sarah Mclachlan. The goal for AlI Of Us was to create something different, shared Grand-Maître to a sold-out audience, I didn’t want to go back to creating another ballet of 20 songs and 20 different tableaus again. I wanted to find a story ballet.
His mission to find a narrative meant finding lyrics to fit the dystopian vision he had for this performance. The music of The Hip, and of Gord Downie goes from beautiful acoustics, stunning poetry to raw violence. Everything packs a cathartic punch, a ballet paired to these sounds had to hit the emotional marks. His selection of 20 songs included noticeably obscure tracks. Those expecting all the Top 40 Hits were certainly surprised. That’s what makes his portrait pieces so powerful- the careful thought and selection of each song included. If it was simply to please fans and not tell a story, the soundtrack would be easy. To effectively tell a story true to The Hip – that’s a difficult feat that was conquered with grace. On his selection process – I try to have music from their entire catalogue. I go from their first album to their last album—depending on how many albums they have, Elton would’ve been a nine-hour ballet. It’s really trying to capture their music throughout their career.
The last years of frontman Good Downie’s life were a whirlwind, creating a powerful narrative of their own. He fought cancer, he toured for his fans and it was a huge-Canadian love affair. It felt like the whole heart of Canada was beating for this brilliant poet. This compassionate embrace occurred within Canada whilst South of the Border all was going to hell.
It was this contrast between what Gord Downie sings about, which is what’s the best about our humanity and the hope he has for our species and this way he has of capturing the worst of our species and the best. Hope and light seems to win in this artist, and in the band’s music. Many of the Hip’s songs are bleak, discussing metaphorical shipwrecks which sparked the idea of an Armageddon, apocalyptic themed story. A wasteland of a world with two clans remaining: one is the Clan of Hannibal, descendants of love and passion that are caretakers of the planet, living in harmony and community and equality; the other Clan of Hadrien are the descendants of greed and hate and intolerance.
It doesn’t take long to settle in after the opening’s shrieking destruction of the world (Man Machine Poem) with a lyrical back-and-forth between young lovers Abraham and Cordelia against The Hip’s acoustically warm Scared. A second duet immediately follows in different technique to As I Wind Down the Pines, danced eloquently by the Clan of Hadrien. As ballet develops, darkness invades and the clan of Hannibal is shown in its depraved rawness (So Hard Done By, Little Bones, Vapour Trails) and the broadly drawn oppositions between the two groups are masterful at all levels of the production, hewing to clear oppositions of good versus evil, acoustic versus electric, light versus dark.
The dancing is often overwhelmingly powerful and so abundantly energetic, it makes one wonder where they are getting their energy. This is one of the most demanding, technically difficult, detailed choreography in company history that expects so much of the ensembles, the audience was left in awe at their technical proficiency and abilities, whether in solo work such as Yoshiya Sakurai’s beautiful Wheat Kings or the second act’s It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken.
Some bits will shock you—”Locked in the Trunk of a Car,” some sections of “Cordelia,” “Fully Completely,” “At the Hundredth Merdian”—and others will soothe your soul —”As I Wind Down the Pines,” “Scared”.
Every second of the performance is so calculated and clever. With a set that looks like a map of Western Canada cast in futuristic distortion, there is so much well-considered, good art jammed into this production that you need to go more than once to appreciate it all. Add to all that seven designers, including weapons, props, martial arts and fight consultants and four indispensable production, costume and stagecraft partners
The ballet matched both music and words to dance with unerring artistic accuracy all night. Even in this destroyed world, the best elements of humanity, such as love and group bonding, shine through in beautiful duets, rhapsodic solos, symmetrical passage work and stamina-defying energy, all to show that even in the worst of times, we overcome our worst tendencies.
If you’re Canadian it’s hard not to be touched by the songs of The Tragically Hip and Gord Downie’s unmistakeable voice. When he left us, Canada mourned as a country. We are better for the voice of The Hip – What The Hip has done for us and continues to do for all of us. This is a band that made us fall in love with music again. The simple act of musicians picking up instruments and making sense of our world again. Their music is so iconic and essential to the Canadian music scene.
Grand-Maître has created a worthy tribute to Canada’s archetypal musicians, a powerful post-Apocalyptic story with tremendous kinetic, balletic power suitably matched to The Hip’s legendary energetic performances and uniquely powerful songs. All of Us is often the most elemental dance set to the most elemental music Canadians have ever known. This is by far Grand-Maitre’s strongest portrait ballet.
Join Alberta Ballet in celebration of The Hip, this spring in the Canadian tour. All of Us will come to life for new audiences across Canada, including multiple performances starting in May in Hamilton, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton.
TOUR DATES CANCELLED
***originally posted to Gigcity 2018 by Lisa Lunney