‘Balletlujah’ provides a sun soaked glimpse into the mind of k.d. lang

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The space and the emptiness of the prairies was the vast canvas that music filled.

– k.d. lang

Sun soaked golden wheat fields sway in the breeze as dancers sway in unison in Balletlujah The documentary, airing on the CBC this Thursday, takes its visual cues from the Canadian Prairies that are so instrumental to the music of k.d lang. This is fitting as the film explores the creation of the Alberta Ballet’s Balletlujah, a ballet based on the music of lang.

Like the bizarre title, Balletlujah is a bit of a mixed bag. There are some great moments, but it feels like it’s just scratching the surface. That said, when director Grant Harvey gets it right, he gets it very right.

The bulk of the piece is more interested in gaining some insight into what makes lang tick as opposed to the creation of the ballet, and this is a good thing. lang gets her moment to impart little bits of philosophical wisdom, interview two female dancers about having to kiss another woman onstage, and talk to Jean Grand-Maître, Artistic Director of the Alberta Ballet, about the his process in developing a ballet based on her music.

This documentary is all about k.d, as her voice, both in word and song, provides a cohesion to the whole piece. Harvey lets her tell her own story and guide the process, which is something that filmmakers often seem reluctant to do. In this instance, stepping back and letting lang take the reigns provides a much more intimate portrait, with the film managing to be personal, but never intrusive. Like Grand-Maître with his ballet, Harvey is less interested in giving us truth or fact, and instead looks to capture the essence of lang’s life and work, as well as her “impulse.”

It helps that lang is a documentation’s dream. Not only a fabulous musician, she has also put a great deal of thought into the music she writes and creates. And she has a great sense of humour that balances nicely with her philosophical insights into what the Prairies have meant to her as an artist and how they have informed her music.

The prairies are the kind of place where a tree is an event.

– k.d. lang

All these moments are then balanced by some spectacular imagery that manages to capture the languid and open feel of lang’s work. The lang interviews are intercut with re-stagings of the completed ballet on location in the Prairies and the streets of LA, as well as rehearsal footage and clips from the stage performance.

I am a sucker for choreography done on location, and Balletlujah does a fantastic job of integrating the movement into the surroundings. If you are a fan of lang’s music, the movement and the images provide the perfect backdrop, creating a contained narrative that is supplemented by lang’s own commentary. However, if you’re hoping to get more than just a sense of the ballet, you will be disappointed.

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There is nothing to fault with the dancing itself (which is world class), but it is next to impossible to gain anything more than an inkling of the choreography itself. The camerawork is choppy and fragmented, constantly shifting which makes it difficult to truly appreciate the movement of the dancers themselves. If dancing is not your thing, it’s difficult to fault the construction of the piece, which pairs the music and the narrative with the documentary footage and that, ultimately, proves to be a perfect marriage. Really, despite my frustrations with how Harvey handled the dancing, the overall piece is undeniably beautifully done. It manages to capture the joy of music, movement and performance in a way that is infectious.

It’s a shame that Balletlujah is only an hour long, as it feels like there’s more than enough material for a feature. More time would also allow for an equal balance between getting a glimpse into the minds of one of Canada’s most celebrated musicians and the creation of an original ballet.

When all is said and done, Balletlujah leaves you wanting more, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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BALLETLUJAH premiers Thursday, June 18th 2015 on CBC at 9pm. Check the CBC website for more details.

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