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Originally published February 24, 2010 at 1:58 PM | Page modified February 24, 2010 at 2:34 PM

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Review: 'The Fiddle and the Drum' puts spirit into Joni Mitchell songs

What the warmly responsive crowd got Tuesday night at the Paramount — without Joni Mitchell — was a large helping of her music, vivid projections of her artwork (mostly film and video images) and an ensemble of admirably impassioned dancers from the Alberta Ballet.

Seattle Times arts critic

Dance review |

Not in attendance at the U.S. premiere of the ballet "Joni Mitchell's The Fiddle and the Drum" at the Paramount on Tuesday night was its illustrious composer.

But the dancers of the Alberta Ballet Company were very much present and accounted for in this evening-length work set to odes by singer-songwriter Mitchell, who could not appear due to ill health.

What the warmly responsive crowd got without Mitchell was a large helping of her music, vivid projections of her artwork (mostly film and video images) and an ensemble of admirably supple, muscular and impassioned dancers, giving their all to Alberta Ballet director Jean Grand-Maitre's choreography.

The dancing was well-attuned to the shifting rhythms, ruminative melodies and brooding undertones of the 13 songs used in the piece, all performed (and some rerecorded for this venture) by Mitchell herself.

Costumed with greens and oranges, and beautifully lighted, the dances were exhilarating in some instances, and performed with technical precision and brio throughout.

But the reliance on unison lines of dancers, and overworked gestures (upraised arms, shoulder lifts) were too simplistic, and lacked the explosive collage effect of Twyla Tharp's homages to pop tunesmiths.

And though Grand-Maitre mostly opted for a semiabstract movement interpretation of Mitchell's lyrics and themes, clichéd literalism reared its head, too.

Blame some of that on the didactic nature of the songs, most from Mitchell's lesser-known albums of the 1980s and later. In tune after tune, she castigates humankind and bemoans the mess the planet is in — environmentally, socially, spiritually. (In case we didn't know about it already.) Meanwhile, a little girl wanders through the proceedings, representing (naturally) innocence incarnate.

The suite has a recurring antiwar motif, complete with goose-stepping and helmets. And in "The Beat of Black Wings," images of traumatized, drugged-out war vets played on the globe-shaped screen above the dancers.

Other songs lash out at obvious targets. In "The Reoccuring Dream," a man rages at his TV set while Mitchell bashes advertisers' promises of "Love in a bottle/love on four wheels."

But there were some lovely passages of pure movement also, to less rambling, more distinctive Mitchell tunes. They include the weaving patterns in the stinging "Sex Kills" number; the shuffling and stamping, Mark Morris-ish group antics to "Ethiopia"; and the loose, sexy, joyful rave-up to "If," Mitchell's seductive cha-cha setting of a Rudyard Kipling poem.

Given the quality of the dancing, one hopes the Alberta Ballet visits again soon. And Joni: Feel better, and the welcome mat is always out for you.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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