, May 2009
Joni Mitchell is one of the most important poet/philosophers who grew out of the 60s hippy scene, creating music which had a social conscience, at a time when the expression social conscience didn’t exist. Big Yellow Taxi is all about corporate America destroying Maw and Paw’s dream. She fully understood the youth movement within a larger context; We are stardust, we are golden and we got to get ourselves back to the garden, she wrote in Woodstock, the anthem for a whole generation.
It’s over 40 years since her first LP appeared and although her recorded legacy isn’t huge, what there is is of great significance and infinite importance. As the hippy chick who told us about the excitement of the Chelsea Morning, and grew in stature and sang of loss, of love—Amour, mama—whilst meditating on the disappearance of Amelia Earhart—for a real treat check out the Shadows and Light live album where she performs a truly incandescent version of Amelia which is highlighted by a transcendental solo from Pat Metheny—finding herself to be a mature woman pondering on where it all went in the beautiful Chinese Café. It’s a rich legacy and it cannot be ignored at any cost.
Because I am a big fan of Joni Mitchell, anything she does is of interest to me and this ballet, which was the brainchild of Jean Grand-Maitre and Mitchell, promised much; it is based on Mitchell’s well known concerns of environmental neglect and the warring nature of mankind. Set to music both old and new, conceived for a small band with Mitchell’s unique vocals leading proceedings, this ballet is in nine, brief, tableaux, set on an empty stage in front of a continuing video behind and above the dancers—which you cannot always see during the performance so, very sensibly, a separate track of this video alone, together with the music, has been included on the DVD. The stage is consistently dark, light coming from their bodies of the dancers themselves. There is no scenery and there are no props except the occasional soldier’s hard hats. So visuals and our prior knowledge of Mitchell’s interests go together to point the way as to where the performance is going to take us.
The burning question is exactly how much do the music and the dance relate to each other and do they really work together? There is much to enjoy in the abstract movement of the dancers, there is little that is overt or obvious—except the Christ figure in Passion Play—and most of the piece moves in a fairly medium paced way, the music all being of a relaxed tempo. This is, of course, one of the joys of popular music in that it can be so radically transformed, and an up–tempo number can exist, equally satisfactorily, as a ballad. However, having written that I have to say that this freedom can also work against the music. Take the song For the Roses, one of my favourites amongst her works, a meditation on the fickleness of fame and fandom. On the eponymous album it is a quick, muted, reflection, in the ballet it is blown out of all proportion and sense. My big problem with the whole enterprise is that the music is so bland, with everything being done in the same way, with the identical, or similar, instrumentation. Mitchell is one of the most varied of all popular music composers yet we hear none of this here—the whole piece never smiles. One other point concerning the music. It is almost de rigueur to, when performing a song live, vary the vocal line, sometimes out of all recognition. Here, we have a 21st century, very funky, version of Big Yellow Taxi, which is used as an encore, which would be totally unrecognisable if one were reliant on the tune for recognition.
But all that aside I have to say that I really enjoyed this work. The music is of the highest quality, as one would expect from an artist of Mitchell’s stature, and the dance is suitably intriguing so as to keep one wondering what we will see next. At the end we are left with the imagine of a young child giving the hippy peace sign with her hand—Joni Mitchell has come a long way artistically since Song for a Seagull in 1967, but the young hippy girl is still there.
Apart from the ballet, the DVD includes short interviews with Mitchell and Maitre and dancers Kelley McKinlay and Nicole Caron, as well as director of filming Mario Rouleau, the complete Cyclops video and the images for the Green Flag Song.
Give this a try—it’s really worth it.