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Photo courtesy Paul McGrath

Alberta Ballet’s PHI is Jean Grande-Maître’s sayonara portrait performance

By Rachneet Randhawa, April 24 2022—

After two years of pandemic related delays, the highly anticipated final installment in Jean Grand-Maître’s portrait ballet series, PHI, features the music of legendary musician David Bowie and is ready to wow Alberta audiences. 

Although the story explores humanity’s growing addiction to technology in a contemporary sci-fci ballet in which boy meets digital world, the score is set to legendary rock and roll star David Bowie, which gives it that iconic lifeblood and oomph.

“Five years ago, the idea of creating a portrait ballet to David Bowie’s immense legacy was sparked. Three years ago, it was conceived and designed. Then the pandemic crashed all of our dreams. But during those two long years, I used the time wisely to perfect and refine the entire production. I’m hoping it will reveal David Bowie’s prophetic genius in a new, refreshing way,” says Grand-Maître.

This ballet in particular was a milestone, as it’s not only one of the much anticipated shows to end the 2021/2022 season but also the retirement of artistic director Jean Grand-Maître and his final portrait ballet after nearly two decades with the Alberta Ballet. This is also alongside star dancers Kelley McKinlay, who plays the title role in PHI and Reilley McKinlay — now a married couple.

“The greatest privilege I’ve had over the past 16 years was to collaborate intimately with the most influential singer-songwriters of our time,” says Grand-Maître. “Joni Mitchell launched the concept and taught me how to understand the process. Her pedigree then opened the door to K. D. Lang, Elton John, Gordon Lightfoot, The Tragically Hip, Sarah McLachlan and now, the cherry on top, the legendary David Bowie,” says Grand-Maître.

It took Grand-Maître nearly five years to piece together the music curated down to 22 of Bowie’s songs and includes some of his biggest hits including “Heroes,” “Life on Mars?” and “Ashes and Ashes” alongside crafting the $1.2 million stage set.

“The way this one’s going to stand out compared to all the other portrait ballets would definitely be the music. Everyone is so cononic in the arts that we danced to what people think of when they think of Bowie. It’s going to present his music in a way that no other artist will be represented,” says Kelly MicKinley. 

PHI explores the contrast between the futuristic virtual world with the fleeting natural beauty of true reality. The overall story arc focuses on a boy addicted to a virtual reality world who is rescued by a woman and whisked away to an escapist nature paradise —  an Eden of sorts — where he meets other fellow escapees from the digital destined world such as himself. 

Photo courtesy Nigel Goodwin

The performance began with a charismatic David Bowie imitation solo later boldly introduced as he transitions into a conductor over his group of colorful mininiors. Or, in this case, a bombastic display of colorful dancers elegantly pirouetting below him as he dazzles us with his smooth and slick moves. The cyber dream was ignited by the costume choice of shiny metallic and alien-like dresses accented by a fringe bob-cut wig for the female dancers. 

Following this, we come to the next scene in which we discover the two protagonists of the story — a boyfriend and girlfriend duet couple — who embark on this kaleidoscopic journey of the digital world together. One of their most intimate scenes comes later as a duet set to Bowie’s “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die.”  Later the two lovers do this nifty retro skyline scene above a downtown cityscape of sorts. This quickly lapses into perhaps the most prominent features of the first act — the golden butterfly scene. 

Played by Reiley McKinley herself, she is literally  strung up and flies around the stage as a  centerpiece as dancers flutter around her. Hoisted in such elegant grace and interacting with the support of the male dancers it was a dazzling display of poise and robustness. Perhaps the most thought-provoking scene in the first act was the naked man character doing a contemporary dance. Although brief, the audience was aghast to see something so alike to the essence of who Bowie was and the lingering effects of the meaning behind his music and persona. 

Next, we had something very much in tune with the quirkiness of the themes of the performance — faceless men with black umbrellas, top hat gals showing off their glitzy moves and a performer with fiery red hair scene set against various backdrops. As an exit out of the first act of the performance, the audience was left with a more subtle green backdrop with an open and arching door mysteriously left out for the audience. 

The second act was more mellow and direct and had fewer transitions between scenes. For starters, they embarked on a forest nymph scene with the dancers eloquently parading around the green and luscious enchanting backdrop. They breakaway into a duo performance by a couple of the starlet dancers, full of romance and gracefulness and perhaps the strongest set of the performance. 

The stage then transformed into an almost grunge-esque scene with patrol officers and security dogs running amuck. The following scene is perhaps the most iconic and represents the strongest character motif of presumably the boy who is stuck in this so-called digital world in that he finally comes to face his demons.

The set is transformed into a sparring battle between the digital world boy and a giant viking creature and is the poetic climax of the story. The costume of the Where-the-Wilds-Things-Are-like creature with dancers on stilts was impressive to say the least. The scene then cuts again to the enchanting forest but this time it’s become more eccentric as escapees from the digital world gather into almost a cult and pay tribute in an ancient worship to mother nature herself.

As the curtain call closes the audience was left with a spectacular feeling of having witnessed something unique and insightful of a story of a boy living in-between the divides of the digital and real world. The addition of  an unsettling void and almost cliffhanger in stunned amazement, left something left to be desired. 

Unlike other performances from Alberta Ballet which follow a traditional narrative, PHI is both abstract and metaphorical with overlapping themes and opts not to follow a chronological order as it escapes to other worldly dimensions. It’s a new, creative and destructive narrative of the strife of the digital world over the natural world reemerging.

It sheds light on the daily human experience and how we find ourselves to be more disconnected due to technology and the information age than ever before, always fleeting as we lose touch with reality and become digital beings. 

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