Sarah McLachlan’s Music Gets a One-Night-Only Ballet

This Saturday at Royce Hall the Alberta Ballet presents <em>Fumbling Towards Ecstasy</em>, a celebration of the singer’s oeuvre

Sarah McLachlan has a great laugh, throaty and deep, which she dispenses frequently and with obvious joy. The Canadian singer-songwriter contains multitudes: this is the same woman, after all, who shot an ASPCA commercial so notoriously depressing that it garnered its very own SNL parody. McLachlan’s music is all about emotional range and connection, making it ideal fodder for the Alberta Ballet’s third foray into pop-inspired ballet, following its successful adaptations of the music of Joni Mitchell and Elton John. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy comes to UCLA’s Royce Hall for one night only this Saturday.

The ballet is McLachlan’s second collaboration with Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maître, whom she met when they worked together on the staging of her performance at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics opening ceremony. “He invited me to come see Joni Mitchell’s ballet—I’m a huge Joni fan and an absolute novice in the world of dance,” McLachlan recalls. “Backstage, I asked if he had ever thought of a ballet based around my music, and he couldn’t believe it! Months later we sat down for about five hours to discuss songs and talk about life and spirituality. From those conversations I decided to do this.”

Her trust in Grand-Maître’s simpatico creativity formed the foundation of the project, McLachlan says. “I recognized in him this beautiful spirit, this great generosity and real desire to honor me and the songs, to do something really special. I thought, ‘you know what, this is going to be gorgeous, you do what you do.’” Although the ballet takes its title from the 1994 album that spawned “Possession,” one of McLachlan’s biggest hits, it spans twenty years of her music; future performances will also feature three new songs. McLachlan’s visual art plays a part in the ballet, as well: “My drawings are part of the backdrop of the piece. Jean appreciated that my drawings were part of the creative process, which I appreciated!”

Grand-Maître has said that the ballet is the story of a woman embodied by dancers ranging in age from eleven to fifty-six, a narrative inspired by both McLachlan’s music and the experiences of female dancers in the company, but McLachlan’s feelings about the story behind her music differ slightly from the artistic director’s. “Jean chose the arc of a woman’s life as the broad representation of this ballet. He’s a great lover and respecter of women. I didn’t really question that,” she explains. “But I think of myself as writing from more of a human perspective—not just as a girl or woman. It’s tricky. Lilith [Fair, McLachlan’s woman-focused music festival, founded in 1997 and revived in 2010] had nothing to do with excluding men—it was about celebrating women!”

“I’m glad L.A.’s getting the show,” McLachlan says. “I hope there’s a lot of dance fans there and a lot of my fans there who will choose to come out and see it. If the arts are going to endure, we need pioneers like Jean who will choose to step out on a limb and create something like this. It’s creating new fans in both genres.” Those new fans include the singer herself, who says “dance was foreign” to her before her collaboration with the Alberta Ballet. When she finally saw the finished product, “I wasn’t the least bit disappointed. The first time I saw the pas de deux set to ‘Hold On,’ I burst into tears. The press was there and the cameras were flashing but I couldn’t help myself. It was just so beautiful and tragic. I felt joy and elation and surprise, a blossoming, an opening of this whole new world.”