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Blair’s DVD Watch: Joni Mitchell’s ‘The Fiddle and the Drum’ (Koch Video)

And now for something completely different. On February 8, 2007, the Alberta (Canada) Ballet Company debuted a wonderful 50-minute dance program set entirely to songs by Joni Mitchell, and featuring paintings and artwork by Mitchell as part of the stage design. Working in close
collaboration with Mitchell (who is Canadian but has lived in the United States for most of her life), choreographer Jean Grand-Maitre selected 10 songs from Mitchell’s immense catalog that had some sort of thematic link to issues about war and the destruction of the environment, and then, using 27 members of the Alberta troupe, conceived the Mitchell ballet, which was staged at the Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary. The result is stunningly beautiful and very powerful.

The attractive and energetic young dancers blend classical and modern ballet skills and approaches, effortlessly combining athletic leaps, spins and carries, with graceful and often sensuous slow movements and (very subtle) mime work. Despite the serious themes, it
never feels heavy-handed. Mitchell herself directed the editing of the piece for video (it was originally a production for the Bravo network), and she and overall director Mario Rouleau do a masterful job of mixing
close-up action with superimpositions and shots that show the wide stage and circular overhead screen, on which Mitchell’s conceptual artwork—named “Green Flag Song”—is projected. There’s a dreamlike quality to much of the staging and choreography that both complements and contrasts with the songs, which span the breadth of her career, with a slight emphasis on her mid- and late ’80s work, as well as her most recent opus, Smile. (This is fine by me. Unlike many fans, I am more of a post-Hejira Joni lover, and I think ’80s albums like Turbulent Indigo and Night Ride Home
are among her best.) It turns out the strong, insistent rhythms in her songs lend themselves well to dance; in fact, the one number here that didn’t work for me is the somewhat plodding orchestra-backed version of “For the Roses,” which lacks that driving pulse that is in so many of
her numbers. My favorites are probably “Passion Play (When the Slaves Are Free),” “Three Great Stimulants,” “If,” and the charming encore of “Big Yellow Taxi” (in its exceptional recent reworking from Smile).

All in all, it’s a pleasing and thought-provoking mixed media adventure; a must for Joni fans.

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