Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal’s Tribute to Leonard Cohen with Dance Me

by Steven Weisz for The Dance Journal

In February of 2018, when Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal (BJM) first presented excerpts from Dance Me at the Prince Theater in Philadelphia, I was, unfortunately, unable to attend the performance. It was also met with a series of mixed reviews at the time.  So it was only fitting that on one of my many jaunts to Toronto, that I had a chance to catch the full performance by Canada’s much-loved dance troupe, on its own soil, honoring one of its own natives – songwriter, poet, and novelist, Leonard Cohen.  In 2016, at the age of 82 and suffering from leukemia, Leonard Cohen died after a fall in his home. His exploration of religion, politics, isolation, sexuality and romantic relationships led to his induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was also invested as a Companion of the Order of Canada, one of that nations highest of honors.

Approved by Leonard Cohen during his lifetime, and under the artistic direction of BJM’s Louis Robitaille and the strong and bold dramaturgy of Eric Jean, Dance Me began to take shape as a premiere for Montreal’s 375th-anniversary celebration. Reflecting the grand cycles of existence in five seasons, as described in Cohen’s deeply reflective music and poems, Dance Me was also designed as a signature piece BJM could tour.

The 90-minute performance acts as an homage to Cohen with no less than three diverse choreographers – Andonis Foniadakis, Ihsan Rustem and a Philly favorite, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Each a powerhouse in their own right, they were able to integrate their own styles into a comprehensive presentation while still showing the complexity for individual interpretation of Cohen’s music. While at times, the transitions between pieces were not as smooth as one may like, the strength of the BJM dancers was enough to pull it off.

Dance Me is built on a carefully curated selection of Cohen’s songs, both old and new, and of course, some of his biggest hits (Suzanne, Hallelujah, Everybody Knows) along with excerpts of his poetry, and even live vocal renditions. In addition to physically demanding choreography, the production included integration of video images, digital effects, and audio clips of Cohen’s voice.  And perhaps, herein lies the prior criticism of this work, in which such effects while adding to the character of the pieces tends to push the entertainment value of BJM’s traditional contemporary dance towards that of a Broadway musical.  Such could be claimed the case with several segments that incorporated vintage typewriters along with projections of singing/talking giant red lips. I am not sure I would take such a critical position with these obvious crowd pleasers, which brought humor and fun to the stage, and perhaps drew a few Leonard Cohen fans into a greater appreciation of dance as a whole.

Special mention should be given to the performances of Yosmell Calderon and principal, Céline Cassone, whose fluid lines, athleticism and intense passion were simply infectious throughout the entire performance.  A duo to Leonard Cohen’s It Seemed the Better Way, was impeccably danced by Céline Cassone and Alexander Hille. But it was the interpretation of Suzanne with these same two dancers that had me riveted as Hille moves Cassone is a series of never-ending, sustained lifts in which Cassone rarely if ever touched the ground.  While the choreographic interpretation of First We Take Manhattan was an upbeat jazzy number worthy of a mention, I found the company number of Cohen’s famous Hallelujah, a tad predictable and cliche.  The use of long poles in several dance numbers as props for dancers to pound the stage, fall back on and spin over still has me puzzled as to its symbolism but was still beautifully executed. Appearances by Jayson Syrette as the evocation of Cohen’s spirit costumed in long coat and hat at times became overplayed and lost in meaning.  As a whole, the execution of complicated phrasing and lifts to ever increasing tempos in Cohen’s music was masterfully achieved by BJM performers.

In the end, Dance Me is skillfully danced, wonderfully entertaining and achieved its purpose of celebrating the life and music of Leonard Cohen.  The packed audience at the Sony Centre in Toronto thought so as well with a standing ovation that lasted well over ten minutes.

You can catch Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal’s Dance Me when it comes to Philadelphia, September 26-28, 2019 as part of Annenberg Center Live’s 2019 Season.

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