Sarah McLachlan Songs Inspire Alberta Ballet's 'Fumbling Towards Ecstasy'

Darren Makowichuk

Following previous collaborations with Elton John and Joni Mitchell, choreographer Grand-Maitre builds his latest production around the Canadian singer's 1993 album.

“You’re destined to become a rock star,” Sarah McLachlan’s best friend, Miranda, wrote in her high school yearbook. Although “rock” hardly suits her soft, breathy intonations, but with nearly 20 million albums sold in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music, and three Grammys to her name, “star” is an easy fit. One of those records is 1993's Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, which is the name of a new ballet by Alberta Ballet Company set to the music of McLachlan playing for one night only at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Jan. 24.

“It’s a new blossoming, an opening up of these songs in a whole new way for me,” McLachlan tells THR. “I’ve lived through a lot of the stuff that I talk about.” The autobiographical nature of her songs led choreographer and company artistic director, Jean Grand-Maitre to loosely string together a fictional narrative of a girl’s growth to womanhood explored through songs drawn from McLachlan’s discography from over twenty years.

It may seem like an odd notion to build a ballet around pop tunes, but Grand-Maitre has done it before, collaborating with Elton John on the 2010 show, Love Lies Bleeding, after making The Fiddle and the Drum with Joni Mitchell in 2007, both in addition to choreographing the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.

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“I was in my mid-twenties, I was single for the first time in my adult life. I was kind of discovering what I was and who I was as an individual. There’s a lot of joy in that record,” she says about her triple-platinum Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. “It was the easiest record I ever wrote. It happened quite quickly. Over about six months. I didn’t have kids,” which made it easier for her to hide away in a cottage in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains, away from distractions. “I had a lot of time to think and I had a lot of freedom to do it. For me, that’s the postcard of those songs and where I was emotionally.”

The performance features ensembles and numerous duets as a girl encounters first love, (“Bring on the Wonder”), betrayal and heartbreak (“Ice”), true love (“Illusions of Bliss”), and finally loss and wisdom. “A lot of her songs are what women go through from the point of view of the woman,” says Grand-Maitre, who surveyed McLachlan as well as the women in the dance company. “I asked them all to come up with a list for me of moments that are really important, the things that sometimes don’t mean so much to men.” The lists came back with numerous items in common — falling in love for the first time, having a child, “betrayal was one of the biggest subjects, infidelity.”

From the list, Grand-Maitre found his narrative and from there began casting. Right away he knew he could use each of the prima ballerinas in the company, like Mariko Kondo and Galien Johnston, because the cast called for all ages from 11 to 60. “You really follow her throughout her whole life that she’s represented by different women in the company giving them all a chance to inhabit the music of Sarah.”

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While the show has received positive reviews in Canada, McLachlan and Grand-Maitre know there those in the dance world who wince at the idea of crossing pop culture and ballet. To them she says, “If you like my music, it’s so worth going. I think it’s wonderful these mash-ups are occurring. I know there might be purists who don’t like it. I think it really helps bring dance to new audiences. And it brings music to new audiences as well. I think it’s a great cross-pollination.”