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stg: the fiddle and the drum—a review

Seattle Theatre Group: The Fiddle and the Drum—A Review

“The Fiddle and the Drum” (photo courtesy of Seattle Theatre Group)
Alberta Ballet’s “The Fiddle and the Drum”
February 23, 2010 at the Paramount Theatre
Choreography by Jean Grand-Maître
Music and Set Design by Joni Mitchell

By Michael Hacker

“The Fiddle and the Drum” rings an alarm bell for the precarious state of human existence, and the dangers we face from war, pollution, and climate change. It is an attempt to use art to influence political change. As dance, the performance succeeded admirably, but as agitprop, it fell short of its goals.

First of all, what worked: the dance itself. The dancers were exquisite, with extraordinary mastery of both ballet and modern technique, illuminated by a joyful inner light that shone throughout the evening of magnificent dance. The dance was exuberant, athletic, and by turns fragile and robust.

Then the music, lush, evocative, thrilling, all featuring Joni Mitchell’s by-turns-husky, then warm, then fervid, alto, like-a-mink caress. Some electronic, mostly acoustic.

The evening was divided into a dozen pieces, all songs by Mitchell that were “poorly received in the ’80s and … repressed for more than 20 years.” These were not Joni Mitchell’s greatest hits, but rather, overlooked and unappreciated gems. While not otherwise a fan of Mitchell’s work, I found them evocative, warm, haunting, and sometimes amusing.

The dancers wore green shorts or leotards, with green paint lining the shadows of their musculature, like the veins of leaves. They seemed like nature spirits, sylphs or dryads.

The first half of the evening,
which included the songs “Sex Kills,” “Passion Play,” “Three Great Stimulants,” “Shine,” “Woodstock,” and “For the Roses,” was more classically balletic, with strict upright form. The second half, which included the songs “The Reoccurring Dream,” “Ethiopia, the Beat of Black Wings,” “If I Had a Heart I’d Cry” and “If,” was far more modern in style and sensibility. This was a very definite change of movement style, yet interestingly, it was completely appropriate to the mood. Also, it is interesting to note that while there were pas de deux throughout the evening, it did not matter which movement style was used, both were equally expressive and equally intimate.

The final piece, “Big Yellow Taxi,” was performed as a kind of planned encore with the company taking a curtain call after “If.”

Some of the songs, like “If I had a Heart I’d Cry,” “For the Roses,” and “The Reoccurring Dream” were more theatrical and possessed a narrative, rather than being expressions of pure movement and feeling. In these dances the company was joined by a child dancer, Clara Stripe, who was also a fine actress, and whose character embodied innocence.

The choreography was undeniably androcentric. The male dancers were used with far more flair than the women. They seemed more individualistic, while the women were strictly ensemble. I tested that assessment with my female companion, who agreed with me and commented that that aspect of the choreography “was like the reverse of Balanchine.” Featured male dancers in the company, Kealan McLaughlin, Blair Puente, Yukichi Hattori, Sebastien Riou, and Patrick Doe, were exceptionally graceful, fluid, and commanding. In the final song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” Anthony Pina did an amazing gymnastic flip, the kind of flip one normally needs a springboard to accomplish, and one of the highlights of the evening was the pas de deux between Mark Biocca and Kelley McKinlay to “Passion Play,” which was electrifying.

While “The Fiddle and the Drum” was, overall, a fine and enjoyable performance, there existed a problem in the execution of its theme. While we are told that the theme is anti-war and pro-environment, the dominant staging was intimate and romantic. During “The Reoccurring Dream,” dancers don German Wehrmacht helmets and carry plastic M-16s—we know because of the way they’re toyed with—real military grade arms would be somewhat heavier. They look like children playing at war-games. Maybe that’s the point. A line of dancers goosestep across the upstage area with their arms raised in ‘hail victory’ Nazi salutes. It’s silly. Maybe that’s the point. The real perpetrators of modern war are not boys who don soldier helmets or political fanatics, but middle-aged power players who start wars so they can get their peckers hard and funnel billions of tax dollars to their war-profiteering cronies. As Warren Beatty’s character John Reed said in “Reds,” the point of war is “profits.” Warmongers and rapists are cut from the same cloth: they get off on the power. Mitchell didn’t address that point nor American ambivalence about our current wars: we tend to hate war, but it’s unconscionable not to respond when planes are deliberately flown into buildings. Shakespeare dealt with that essential ambivalence: “In peace, nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility. But when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger…disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage.”

However, Mitchell’s statements about war are innocuous handwringing, like Mr. Mackey from South Park: “War—that’s bad, um-kay? It’s bad.”

To me it felt as though Jean Grand-Maitre and Joni Mitchell collaborated in an artistic Hegelian dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Both apparently did their own thing and let the chips fall where they may. The results were mostly successful, but where the performance approached truth was in the choreographer’s insistence on expressing a need for intimacy and longing for romance, which in fact, underpins all of Joni Mitchell’s music.

Like starved beasts, the Seattle audience leapt to their feet for a prolonged standing ovation. We need, we desire, we must have, more art—we are alienated from ourselves, and we rarely feel with any intensity the intimate, romantic beauty that we witnessed in “The Fiddle and the Drum.”

Here’s an excerpt of “The Fiddle and the Drum” from Classical TV. The YouTube page this video comes from says you can watch the entire ballet for what looks like a small fee by clicking here.

“The Fiddle and the Drum”
By Permission of Crazy Crow Music-Sony/ATV Music Publishing Canada, Courtesy of Warner Music Canada
Performance: Tuesday Evening February 23, 2010 at the Paramount Theater, Seattle.

Music and Set Design
By Joni Mitchell

Jean Grand-Maitre

Film Editor
Robert Ivison

Lighting Design:
Pierre Lavoie

Costume Design:
Pamela Kaye after Jean Grand-Maitre

Featuring the Company of the Alberta Ballet.