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A prairie love story: Alberta Ballet pays tribute to singer k.d. lang

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EDMONTON - Singer k.d. lang is so proud of the Alberta Ballet's artistic take on her prairie upbringing, she wants to see it performed outside the province.

"Balletlujah!" opened May 3 in Edmonton and is to close in Calgary on Saturday after eight shows.

The company's artistic director and choreographer, Jean Grand-Maitre, says the 51-year-old vocalist attended the premiere and loved it.

"She wanted it to really go out on tour," he says. "And her manager was there and he said he was very touched from the very beginning of the ballet and he would love to help us bring it out."

If the show ends up elsewhere, it won't be any time soon. The company is booked solid with other events for the next two years, says Harry Paterson, Alberta Ballet's director of production and touring.

He says presenters from California and Texas in the Calgary audience will be trying to determine whether a dance based on lang's life would be a hit south of the border.

Grand-Maitre says "Balletlujah!" is the first ballet he knows of with a gay love story. When he was crafting the piece and going through lang's music, he realized most of her songs were about love and so her ballet would be too.

"I said, 'OK, it can't be a man and a woman because it's k.d. lang, and I'm pretty sure when she's singing love songs she doesn't see Brad Pitt in her head,'" he says with a laugh.

"So, I said, 'OK, we're going to do a love story between two women and it was not about being gay, or becoming gay. It wasn't about that. It just happens to be two women and it's a pure love.'"

The story focuses on a young woman in a prairie town who falls in love at a barn dance. She moves with her lover to the big city but their relationship sours. Heartbroken, the heroine returns home and finds love again.

Grand-Maitre says lang consulted on the project and was initially nervous because she didn't know anything about ballet. He reassured her. "It's not going to be skinny ballerinas on pointe shoes ... think of it as performance art."

Far from such classics as "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty," the piece puts some of the dancers in cowboy boots and high-heel shoes. At one point, a pint-sized pooch even makes an appearance.

Video projections provide a stunning backdrop of swaying wheat fields, starry nights and fluttering flocks of birds. A slow-moving motorcycle carrying the two lead characters also roams over rolling foothills.

The company sent a film crew to capture shots around Consort, Alta., where lang grew up. Grand-Maitre says he sat beside lang's 90-year-old mother during the premiere and she was mesmerized.

"All the time she kept holding her hands and saying, 'I know that tree. I know that church. Isn't that the old farm?'"

He says some people may find the visual effects dizzying, but the ballet is trying to build a new and younger audience. It has already done tributes to the music of Joni Mitchell, Sarah McLachlan and Elton John.

The so-called pop or "portrait" ballets are bringing in people who have never been to the ballet before, he says. Lang's legion of fans are the latest to give the art form a shot.

The show features 16 of her songs, including "Big Boned Gal" and "Constant Craving." It wraps up with her soaring version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

Grand-Maitre describes lang as an extraordinary singer, and says opera singers and pop stars have confided in him that they consider her voice one of the greatest of her time. The ballet's dancers must have heard her music 700 times during rehearsals.

"And we never got tired of hearing it. Her voice just seems to put air under us."

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