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Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal (BJM)

February 24, 2018

Dance Me

Reviewed February 23, 2018

NAC Southam Hall, Ottawa

(Repeat performance February 24, 8 p.m.)

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Photograph by Marc Montplaisir

Ah, Leonard Cohen! What’s not to love about this legendary poet, songwriter, singer, who gave us such memorable songs as Suzanne and So Long, Marianne, Famous Blue Raincoat, Dance Me, Hallelujah . . . His unique perspective on politics, religion, love, sex and death, and his remarkable grace, all wove their way into our lives for decade after decade after decade.

From his teens until his death at the age of 82, Cohen revealed his soul to the world through his poems and his fiction, his songs and his music.

While he knew and approved of BJM’s project, Dance Me, which Ottawa got to see Friday night, Cohen did not participate in the process and died a year before its premiere in Montreal in December.

My first thought about BJM’s ambitious project about the masterful Cohen was how could you possibly interpret the span of the man? How could you boil down Cohen’s creativity into an hour or two of dance? I mean where do you start?

Louis Robitaille, BJM’s artistic director, worked for several years on the 80-minute piece, pulling together three choreographers from around the globe: Andonis Foniadakis of the Greek National Ballet, the Colombian-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and British-born Ihsan Rustem, who is resident choreographer for the Northwest Dance Project in Portland, Oregon. The three brought their individual interpretations of Cohen’s music and words to the project, the whole of which was guided by Montreal dramaturge and stage director Eric Jean.

Jean introduced an abstract vision to the piece, as well as his own lighting, scenography and videography people. His goal was to capture Cohen’s elegance.

To be honest, I’m still undecided about this show. The tone, in terms of lighting and costumes, was right. Mostly black. Stark. Sharp lighting, sometimes blindingly bright, even a bit of strobe. The men mostly in black suits, sometimes a fedora, sometimes bare-chested with loose black pants. The women in floaty less-than-hip-length tunics, white or black, sometimes suits or pants and bras. Yes, it all has a Leonard Cohen look to it.

Of course, the music, conceived by Alexis Dumais, is all Cohen. Well, it’s not all Cohen. It’s his work, but not him. Some of it is, some of it isn’t, and the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired. Two pieces were sung on stage: So Long, Marianne by a young woman with a soft pretty voice, who sat demurely on a stool off to the side of the stage; and Hallelujah by a man, whose voice echoed beautifully through the auditorium, accompanied by a kneeling female vocalist. I wish I knew who they were! Both were touching performances that brought a deep stillness to the otherwise frenetic pace.

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Céline Cassone and Alexander Hille perform a duet to Suzanne, Photograph by Thierry du Bois

And there were other beautiful touches, such as the duet to the infamous Suzanne, and the  voice-over reading from Cohen’s letter to “the” Marianne days before her death, when he anticipated his own would follow shortly.

But some of the images just don’t make sense to me – disembodied lips? Projections of bodies falling through space in slow-motion? Glowing red balls in the dancers’ mouths?

Or, in fact, the frenzied movement by BJM’s very physical and athletic dancers. Impressive overall performance (faltering at times), but I can’t really connect that kind of motion to the Cohen I have listened to all my life.

Nevertheless, if you’re a Cohen fan (or a BJM fan!), take in this unique show. You may be disappointed, or you may love it. But there are certain little gems that bring a worthwhile perspective to the memory of Cohen.

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From → Contemporary

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