Grand-Maître said he developed his story line after conversations with John, in which the singer revealed "very personal, private things" about his life, such as lamenting his early inaction against the AIDS crisis (since 1992, the Elton John Aids Foundation has raised more than $175 million). He describes the three main narratives as a "story of triumph" in which John "succumbs to addiction but resurrects himself through acts like charity and love" with his partner David Furnish (a Canadian), a look at the excesses and perils of pop stardom, and "the repression of homosexuality."
The ballet's choreography was marked in July and August, Grand-Maître always asking his dancers for "a little more," uttering such directions as "more juice in the torso" and "put some Viagra on these elbows."
Continually tweaking the choreography as he watched his dancers in action, Grand-Maître frequently sought their suggestions.
Yukichi Hattori, 29, one of two company dancers scheduled to take on the Elton role, said, "It's like we build our languages together."
For Kelley McKinlay, 26, the production's other lead dancer, one big challenge of the choreography was learning to work with rigging, when his character "flies" on a wire during "Someone Saved My Life Tonight."
"To have that in a ballet, per se, is pretty cool. And then there's the roller skates [with fire coming out during "Rocket Man"] . . . and the spinning record. I can't imagine any other dancer in the world saying, 'Oh yeah, I did that in a ballet.' "
Although calling the ballet "a collaboration between artists," Grand-Maître notes that John has been much less involved than Mitchell was with "The Fiddle and the Drum." John's role is technically as a "consultant," with Grand-Maître communicating with John mostly via e-mails sent through John's creative manager, his "private valet," or through Furnish. John has thus far seen none of the choreography and even asked this reporter to describe rehearsals she'd seen. The last scheduled meeting between John and Grand-Maître has been canceled twice, once because of a change in John's touring plans and again when John had the flu.
John was, however, consulted in the song selection, and initially approved the ballet's soundtrack, Grand-Maître said, but later asked for two song changes -- including replacing the little known "Love Song" with "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" for the number in which John first begins to battle his demons. That piece, a soft-shoe tap sequence complete with men in heels and women with whips, was already fully rehearsed -- sending Grand-Maître scrambling to adapt his choreography into a new song.
John also selected "The Bridge" for the ballet's AIDS metaphor, Grand-Maître said. And later, well after the company had begun promoting the ballet simply as "Elton," John requested the name be changed to "Love Lies Bleeding," which he told The Times is "one of my favorite songs from 'Yellow Brick Road,' and I thought it just summed up the title of my life much better."
The choice seems apropos given that John paired the song on the 1973 album with "Funeral for a Friend," an instrumental John said then was the kind of music he'd like played at his own funeral; the ballet begins in an abandoned theater, with the lead dancer -- initially known as "The Spectator" -- reliving the superstar's life in a fan's fantasy 100 years after John's death.
Dancer Hattori said of his interpretation of the Spectator/Elton John character: "Deep down, this person just wants to express himself, but he is very introverted, he has to put a mask on to reach out to people. He has a strong desire to be out there and be heard.
"[Maybe that's why John] went overboard with decorating himself and playing something he's not. It builds up frustration -- kind of a schizophrenic dilemma -- when you're not really yourself."