‘Love Lies Bleeding’
by Marene Gustin
Photo by Charles Hope
A meteoric rise to super-stardom, addiction, homosexual fantasies, deep despair, and then redemption through true love.
It’s the story of Sir Elton John, set to his greatest hits. And it’s a ballet.
Houston Ballet’s Cullen Series presents the American premiere of Jean Grand-Maître’s Love Lies Bleeding next January. First performed in Calgary by Grand-Maître’s Alberta Ballet, this 2010 rock ballet has wowed audiences with its Vegas-style costumes by Martine Bertrand, choreography by Grand-Maître, and the incredible score of 14 songs by John and his collaborator Bernie Taupin.
“It was Elton’s idea to base the ballet on the story of his life, as a way to educate people about addiction,” says Grand-Maître, artistic director of Alberta Ballet. “And it was his idea to use Funeral for a Friend (the instrumental piece that often precedes Love Lies Bleeding in concert) and the song Love Lies Bleeding.”
John also wanted to use Love Lies Bleeding as the title of the ballet because, as Grand-Maître tells it, “he said love is what saved him.”
The famed Canadian choreographer grew up listening to Good Bye Yellow Brick Road and Bennie and the Jets, and while he understood John’s epic tale of fame, darkness, and final redemption, it didn’t really resonate with his life. “In the ballet world today, we can’t get involved with addiction,” he says, unlike some stars in the 1980s. “And I’m happily involved. He’s a massage therapist, so we are never separating.”
The collaboration with John wasn’t Grand-Maître’s first foray into the world of pop ballet. In 2007, he teamed up with Joni Mitchell for the ballet The Fiddle and the Drum. “At first I resisted pop, but we were looking at bringing in new audiences,” he says. “Thousands of people who had never seen a ballet came and saw it!” he says.
John, who is friends with Joni Mitchell, heard about the ballet and asked her for a video of the ballet. After that, Grand-Maître e-mailed John and asked if he would be interested in collaborating on a ballet of John songs. John replied with an immediate yes. “The first time we met, I was intimidated,” he recalls. “But he is not his image—he is very British and was raised well by his mother. He’s so friendly and brilliant. We talked about art and opera. It was wonderful.”
Grand-Maître was so sure of the appeal of the ballet that he convinced his board to invest $1.2 million into the production, which only had permission for a run of six performances in Canada. His designers spent months researching John’s costumes to create the dancer ensembles. The gamble paid off—people flocked to see Love Lies Bleeding. But due to John’s touring schedule, he wasn’t able to attend the performances. Friends of his did, and Grand-Maître sent the rock star a tape of the performance. And he waited. And waited.
“Finally I heard back,” he says. “He adored it! We got permission to tour the ballet, so I didn’t lose my job after all.”
Grand-Maître describes the ballet as dark—a cabaret of excesses, fame too fast, sexual ambiguity, but ultimately happiness found through love and purpose.
Dance critic Michael Crabb called it “risky and risqué,” writing: “The stand-in John character is haunted and taunted by a coven of cod-pieced demons—channeling A Clockwork Orange—who at one point seem to be on the verge of copulating with the chandelier-helmeted musician’s revolving white piano.”
Grand-Maître has continued his collaborations with contemporary artists with such well-received ballets as Fumbling Towards Ecstasy with Sarah McLachlan and Balletlujah! with k.d. lang. And he’s hoping to get permission from the John Lennon estate to create a ballet based on the singer/songwriter’s post-Beatles period. “What is peace, what is religion?” he asks. “I find that Lennon’s music is so relevant right now.”
But for now, the choreographer is focusing on the upcoming Houston performances. Although John has never seen the ballet live, Grand-Maître says the star has friends in Houston who are planning to come to the performance. And as for Grand-Maître himself, who has been to Houston twice before, he’s not only looking forward to his company’s performances, but also to seeing some of the city’s wonderful museums and the Houston Grand Opera.
Oh, and one other thing. “Most of all, the dancers and I just want to come to Houston and get away from the Canadian winter!”
What: Houston Ballet’s Love Lies Bleeding
When: January 30 & 31
Where: Brown Theater at the Wortham
Center, 500 Texas Street
Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.