After two years of pandemic-related delays, and years of planning before that, a ballet dedicated to the music of David Bowie is set to hit the stage in Edmonton.
Thursday is opening night of Alberta Ballet’s PHI at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium.
Inspired by the music and lyrics of the late English singer-songwriter’s work, PHI explores the contrasting aesthetics of the futuristic virtual world with the natural beauty of the disappearing world of true reality.
“In one of his final compositions, ‘Blackstar,’ David Bowie wrote a few lines that bewildered me and became the spark for this seventh portrait ballet,” said Alberta Ballet’s artistic director Jean Grand-Maître. “He wrote, ‘in the Villa of Ormen stands a solitary candle at the centre of it all your eyes.’
“Exploring our dehumanization as we find ourselves dissolving into our Frankenstein technologies has always been an obsession of mine.
“David Bowie is absolutely, I think, the ideal muse to create a ballet about technology and about the dangers of the meta-universe, of disappearing into the digital world.”
PHI has been in the works for years. The Alberta ballet company first approached Bowie’s estate six years ago and research was being done in the years before that.
“By the time we were able to get the permission from the Bowie estate to create the ballet, it took another year,” Grand-Maître explained. “Then we started conceptualizing the ballet, selecting the songs from his huge anthology and that took another couple of years. And then by the time we were ready to create the ballet, there was a pandemic.
“That prolonged the premiere by another two years, so it’s almost a five-year, six-year project now.”
PHI is the latest in a series of portrait ballets put on by Alberta Ballet since 2007. Joni Mitchell launched the concept, followed by ballets inspired by the works of k. d. lang, Elton John, Gordon Lightfoot, The Tragically Hip and Sarah McLachlan.
“This is the final portrait ballet, and so throughout the decade now, what we’ve been doing is developing technique of creating these portrait ballets with designers from Cirque du Soleil from across Canada. Six world-class designers come together with me as a choreographer and we create these surrealistic ballets using technology, projection, everything imaginable,” Grand-Maître said.
“Being able to create this final portrait ballet, with such a profound theme, to the prophetic lyrics of one of the century’s greatest artists is the proverbial cherry on the sundae.”
With the help of flying acrobats, stilt walkers and police dogs, the dancers will perform 15 of Bowie’s songs. Grand-Maître hopes the ballet helps the audience rediscover Bowie in a new light.
“You’re going to live in that David Bowie world for two hours with us and this extraordinary music, but also in this visualization that is quite a spectacle.”
The ballet opened last week in Calgary to standing ovations.
“People really getting out of the world news for two hours and living a beautiful dream with our magnificent dancers.”
PHI also holds a special place in Grand-Maître’s heart as it is the last piece of his work to be performed on stage before he retires. Grand-Maître has been Alberta Ballet’s artistic director for more than 16 years. He leaves the company with a lot of optimism, achieving what he wanted with the ballet. Now it’s time for someone else to take over and run with it.
“I’m so happy to end my career with this ballet because it’s a success; people enjoy it, the dancers are having a great time, the designers really outdid themselves. So all in all, it’s a wonderful way to leave Alberta Ballet and my years as a choreographer. I’m really looking forward to the future.”
PHI runs from March 31 to April 2 in Edmonton, with shows Thursday and Friday night, and two shows on Saturday.
More information on the ballet can be found on Alberta Ballet’s website.
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