Turning The Tragically Hip Music into a Ballet
Alberta Ballet's Jean Grand-Maitre was challenged by the electric guitar-heavy music and felt the intense responsibility to get this ballet right.
Photograph by Paul McGrath
What comes to mind when you hear The Tragically Hip? If it’s a post-apocalyptic world with warring factions fighting over resources under the shadow of a 30-foot rusted ship in the desert, you’ve got something in common with Alberta Ballet’s artistic director, Jean Grand-Maître.
For Alberta Ballet’s latest production, All of Us, Grand-Maître dove headlong into the discography of The Hip and came out the other side with a story that plays off recurring themes in the band’s songs and what he sees as modern woes. “I was really upset with what I saw in the American elections and the barbarity of nature, the environment, the fires and the floods,” says Grand-Maître. The song “Titanic Terrarium,” in particular, while not used in the ballet, stoked his creative fires. “It’s a post-nuclear apocalypse song about the world living in a bubble — there are just cockroaches left — and it all started to connect. Imagine if we’re hearing these songs 100 years later and the world had been through Armageddon, the oceans have dried up, there’s almost no water on earth, there are very few people left and they’re scrambling to survive.”
Since his 2007 collaboration with Joni Mitchell, The Fiddle and the Drum, Grand-Maître has created ballets around the work of the popular artists Sarah McLachlan, Elton John and k.d. lang. In spite of his vast experience, All of Us still presented new challenges, such as choreographing for electric guitar-heavy music. “It’s an instrument that is so powerful, that if you have an hour and a half of electric guitar onstage, no dancer could match that,” he says. His solution? Have the heavier tracks represent the story’s “dark clan” and the Hip’s lighter, acoustic fare represent the “light clan,” and alternate between the two.
Grand-Maître had been working on the ballet for about a year when he heard the news that Hip frontman Gord Downie had succumbed to brain cancer in October 2017. “I was glad I finished the script before he passed away,” Grand-Maître says. “The sickness and the cancer is the last chapter of his life, but it’s not all the chapters.”
The ultimate test for the artistic director will come opening night, when the remaining band members will see the ballet for the first time, the group’s first public event since Downie’s passing. “Sitting next to [the artists] is excruciatingly stressful because I start bouncing and dancing along with the dancers,” says Grand-Maître. “At one point, I didn’t realize, I grabbed k.d. [lang]’s knee because the scenery wasn’t coming in where it was supposed to — she said I left an imprint!”
If the band approves, then Alberta Ballet will be able to tour All of Us, however, that’s not yet guaranteed. “It might be a ballet that’s only seen in Alberta, but that’s always the risk” says Grand-Maître. “Obviously since Gord passed away the responsibility is even more intense to get it right, and that’s what good art is all about, it makes us work harder.”
All of Us runs May 2 to 6 at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium.
Photograph by Paul McGrath