Ballet: Alberta Ballet’s “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” at Royce Hall

By Jane Rosenberg

Sarah McLachlan’s fans turned out in vast numbers last night for Alberta Ballet’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, a ballet by company director, Jean Grand-Maître, set to McLachlan’s folk-pop songs. McLachlan also provided the art for the vast backdrop of video projections. The result: an entertainment more conducive to a Grammy awards night stage than an evening at the ballet.

So distracting were the projections that the very able dancers of the Alberta Ballet were lost amid the flames, ocean waves, whales, tree roots, plants, mandalas, giant jellyfish, and glaciers floating on the enormous screen. It felt as if Grand-Maître didn’t trust enough in his choreography or dancers to leave them the space, air, and light to perform unimpeded.

There was a narrative structure to the ballet – the romantic journey of a woman who moves from immature to mature love with spiritual overtones provided by the backdrop and McLachlan’s plaintive music. To seventeen songs, various dancers took on the role of the heroine from childhood to maturity. Unfortunately, a sameness settled in, both in the choreography and the music.

Variety was in short supply as Grand-Maître relied too much on repetition and less on structuring patterns. The format was often a pas de deux front and center with streams of dancers flying across the rear of the stage from wing to wing. So frequently did his dancers jeté or spin across the back that it began to feel like the 405 at rush hour. The effect was joyous and energetic but it ultimately left one distracted and unable to focus on the principals.

As a popular entertainment, I suppose Grand-Maître and his talented company delivered, but as art, the ballet fell short. Literal mindedness overpowered any sense of discovery. Overt symbolism trumped subtlety. In “Ice,” the subject was romantic betrayal. The lover, leaving his girlfriend lying broken on the ground, moved from one temptress to the next (all three dressed in black sparkly bras). He in turn, grabbed the crotch of one, spread the legs of another, and lustily lifted the third.

The most engaging moments of the evening came in the second half with the dancing of Hayna Gutierrez, Kelley McKinlay, and Serena Sandford portraying the rewards of mature love. The most exasperating were the “Sisterhood” sections where a quartet of dancers represented empowered women. With smug grins planted on their faces, they thrust a hip or strutted confidently. It felt a bit like girl power on the schoolyard.

Without doubt, the dancers of Alberta Ballet are well trained and technically skilled. Talent abounds – they are musical, exuberant, and attractive. The dancers seemed to enjoy performing to McLachlan’s music, but it would be a pleasure to see them dance to more nuanced choreography and more complex music.

Photos  by Don Lee, courtesy of Alberta Ballet 

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To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

Jane Rosenberg Dance Book cover.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children



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