Alberta Ballet casts David Bowie in PHI’s sci-fi premiere

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Wherever he is in the afterlife, David Bowie should be delighted.

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Almost five years after its inception, after many delays and incalculable refinements, Alberta Ballet’s synthesis of Bowie’s songs came to fruition in Phi. Splendid to look at, sweeping in its music and movement, with serious surprises and spectacular technical magic, it is a dance work for our times that will be remembered for years to come.

Bowie’s songbook was a perfect starting point for retired artistic director Jean Grand-Maître who conceived the Phi show as his last “ballet portrait” for the company. Linked to a dystopian vision of the future, it evokes a striking virtual reality before offering us a daydream in the arms of mother nature, a thoughtful, inventive and fun journey even if it does not always make sense in a linear mode of tale.

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While Bowie fans (myself included) will find Phi a particular treat, it should touch anyone thinking about the future. Don’t expect a dance-set greatest hits package or some sort of star biography. There are only a handful of “hits” in this two-act, 15-song set that spans 45 years, chosen more for their adherence to Grand-Maître’s underlying theme, “humanity dissolving into his own Frankenstein technologies, both spiritually and physically”.

Congratulations to Kelley McKinlay, chosen for the young man named Phi on opening night in Edmonton. And kudos to Mariko Kondo, in dual roles as the object of Phi’s attention and later her savior of sorts. There were many highlights, including a feature for the couple in each act. And you can’t miss the many dancers forming tight, synchronous ensemble movements around them.

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The vocabulary of the choreographer of Grand-Maître travels from one style to another, sometimes all in one piece. There were tasty contrasts between the more classic ballet feel of It’s No Game and Heathen, the modern twists of Love Is Lost and The Loneliest Guy, and the simple social dance moves of the backing ensemble in other parts. .

The dancers of Alberta Ballet in their interpretation of Phi, inspired by the music of David Bowie.
The dancers of Alberta Ballet in their interpretation of Phi, inspired by the music of David Bowie. Photo by Paul McGrath /Provided

The technical fun begins before the curtain even opens with an introduction from our host, I’ll call MC Glam, who is welcoming but a bit creepy at the same time he invites us in.

Know that the story here is suggestive, entirely open to interpretation. Everyone will find their own personal references, but the visual universe of the series is reminiscent of films like Tron, The Matrix and Metropolis, and scenes that turn wonderfully with robotics and René Magritte.

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It’s not hard to figure out that Phi is a VR junkie for most of Act 1, wearing VR goggles as he takes an electronic carpet ride through cyberspace, meeting a woman who I will call the Goddess Chrome among other distractions from all normal reality. Aerial gadgets and an electric skateboard enable his fantastic journey.

Alberta Ballet’s genius design team creates a haunting sense of detachment that shines through in a compelling, multi-layered depiction of cyberspace, placing other dancer-passengers randomly behind the principal dancers, all perfectly matched to Leon Takes Us Outside and Life On by Bowie Mars. By the time the first act ends with his Magritte moment on 5:15 The Angels Have Gone, Phi is in virtual hell.

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The first songs of Act 2 see Phi escaping for a long romp in the forest, and whatever that might be (Garden of Eden?), it’s beautiful. It all culminates in a pas de deux with McKinlay and Kondo linked to Bowie’s largely instrumental undergrounds, a gripping sequence of rapture with glowing water lilies, which was the dance highlight of the show for this fan. This poignant work makes what follows all the more shocking, even shocking.

I can’t give the final but random associations that have crossed my mind, including thought police, fascism, and biblical references. Lilith maybe? No animals were harmed, maybe just Phi.

My only real issue with the material was hearing Bowie’s anthemic anthem, Heroes, cap off the show, which sounded too serious for a happy ending. But that’s my interpretation of Heroes.

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Knowing the name Phi, in addition to being a letter of the Greek alphabet, is a reference here to the golden ratio or the golden ratio, a recurring pattern in nature, art and mathematics that you must check if you are unfamiliar. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how this applies to Phi ballet, but that’s just one of the stimulating details you’ll take home.

The changing relationship between the humanities and technology is a theme that Grand-Maître has been addressing for some time now, most notably in his 2019 production Frankenstein. Phi goes one step further to reflect on how our detachment from reality affects the planet as a whole. It’s hard not to marvel at how he’s managed to tie these issues together in a multimedia show or to applaud his wonderful 20-year contribution to the legacy of Alberta Ballet.

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This week is also marked by the final greetings of principal dancer McKinlay, who is leaving after 20 years, and his wife and fellow dancer Reilley McKinlay, who is finishing 14 (she flies like a golden idol at the start of Phi). What a treat to see such gifted performers come out on such a high note, and tributes to the dancers and choreographer rounded out the show on Thursday.

Be aware that three dancer casts alternate on the Edmonton run with full programs online at albertaballet.com. A playlist Bowie’s Phi songs are available on Spotify.

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REVIEW

Alberta Ballet presents Phi

The music: david bowie

Choreography: John Grand Master

Or: Jubilee Auditorium

When: Continuation Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: From $60 on ticketmaster.ca or 1-855-985-5000

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