Iconic Co­hen in­spires dance per­for­mance


By the time he died in 2016 at age 82, poet, singer and song­writer Leonard Co­hen was widely wor­shipped in many quar­ters around the globe. And de­spite mov­ing to warmer climes in his later years, Mon­treal was very much at the cen­tre of his art ... in­spi­ra­tions, places, girl­friends.

It was only nat­u­ral then that Mon­treal found a way to pay trib­ute to the man, marked last year as part of that city’s 375th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions. And what bet­ter or­ga­ni­za­tion to mount that trib­ute than Les Bal­lets Jazz de Mon­treal, BJM for short, Canada’s in­ter­na­tion­ally fa­mous, pi­o­neer­ing con­tem­po­rary dance com­pany for over 45 years now?

“Mr. Co­hen was the great­est am­bas­sador of our com­mu­nity,” ex­plains Louis Ro­bitaille, artis­tic di­rec­tor of BJM since 1998. “His life’s work is def­i­nitely out of pro­por­tion — a huge moun­tain.”

Ro­bitaille ac­tu­ally pro­posed the idea four years ago while Co­hen was still around. Sadly, Co­hen wasn’t able to see the show be­fore his pass­ing but the con­cept won the song­writer’s seal of ap­proval.

“I wanted some­thing that looked and felt like Mon­treal be­cause he was born in Mon­treal. I wanted some­thing we could of­fer to the Cana­dian peo­ple, not only to hear but to see his songs, and of course, ev­ery­where we tour he rings a bell, both to the dance com­mu­nity and to a mu­si­cal au­di­ence.”

When Ro­bitaille first made the pro­posal, Co­hen’s lawyer warned BJM that many pro­pos­als sat on the singer’s desk, that “the door is not closed, but it’s not open ei­ther.” Nev­er­the­less, sev­eral weeks later the sage of se­duc­tion sent his sup­port for the show with the agree­ment that the bal­let not ex­plore his per­sonal life, in as much as you can play those songs, so in­deli­bly at­tached to his per­son­al­ity.

The real work on the show started about seven months af­ter Co­hen’s pass­ing, in mid-2017, and for this spe­cial pro­ject, no ex­pense was spared. In fact, it’s the most am­bi­tious pro­duc­tion BJM has ever mounted (ru­moured cost, $500,000), bring­ing to­gether the forces of three Euro­pean chore­og­ra­phers (An­do­nis Fo­ni­adakis, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Ih­san Rustem), two theatre di­rec­tors (Eric Jean, Alexan­dre Brunet), top light­ing and cos­tume de­sign­ers, 14 dancers and 17 of Co­hen’s tunes over the 80-minute show.

“A theatre di­rec­tor was im­por­tant be­cause I didn’t want a recital. I wanted very phys­i­cal, ath­letic dancers but I wanted some­thing on a hu­man level, too. The three chore­og­ra­phers helped us avoid any­thing monochro­matic. Then I did my home­work. I lis­tened to all of his work and some other artists’ record­ings, too, and some­how came up with the songs, but it was re­ally heart­break­ing. I started with over 30 songs and we were still chang­ing and cut­ting right up to the pre­miere.”

Ro­bitaille picked tracks from Co­hen’s first self-ti­tled 1967 al­bum to his last, 2016’s You Want It Darker — in­clud­ing one live con­cert recording. Be­tween three chore­og­ra­phers, the dif­fer­ent tem­pos and dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions (duets, trios, en­sem­bles) they “worked for va­ri­ety,” adding photo and video pro­jec­tions along with the light­ing. Fi­nally, there’s a loose the­matic con­ti­nu­ity to the show.

“This was an ex­cep­tional artist who cre­ated all his life so it seemed nat­u­ral to as­so­ci­ate it to cy­cles of life, to the sea­sons, spring, sum­mer, fall, win­ter.”

And Ro­bitaille added a fifth sea­son, “In­dian sum­mer,” like a sym­bolic echo of Co­hen’s prime that fol­lows win­ter, taking the show to the end of life and “an un­known uni­verse.”

When it comes to at­mo­spher­ics, ro­mance is a fre­quent el­e­ment in the stag­ing, but Ro­bitaille took care to plant a few hu­mor­ous mo­ments, too, be­cause hu­mour “was im­por­tant to Mr. Co­hen.”

“From the be­gin­ning, it was a very sen­si­tive thing to de­sign be­cause everybody who knows Mr. Co­hen’s work has some mem­o­ries or an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of some songs. But I think we’ve been able to make his mu­sic live and feel and hear again in the chore­og­ra­pher’s lan­guage. It was im­por­tant to pay respect, but we also wanted some­how to have him with us on stage, to feel that emo­tional warmth.”

Two BJM video re­leases from the pro­ject de­pict Dance Me To The End Of Love, prob­a­bly as close as

the show comes to a clas­si­cal pas de deux, and a vi­brant, full en­sem­ble treat­ment of Lover, Lover, Lover. In other sec­tions, dancers ap­pear in sil­hou­ette like Co­hen’s ghost, and the en­tire en­sem­ble also takes on the late singer’s sig­na­ture at­tire in dark suits and fe­do­ras. In keep­ing with BJM’s fear­less strides on the cut­ting-edge, there are no pointe shoes on stage, just soft shoes, socks or bare feet.

You sense that Dance Me is one of Ro­bitaille’s great­est labours of love in the 20 years he has headed up BJM. At 60, his fo­cus is on con­cep­tion and chore­og­ra­phy, but this is the first com­pany that in­spired him decades ago when, as a teenager, he was of­fered a sum­mer schol­ar­ship. In be­tween, he danced with many of the top com­pa­nies around the world but he’s happy to be “back home.”

“We mix up all the styles of dance. We’re try­ing to mir­ror what’s go­ing on in the dance world to­day, but to re­act and to be orig­i­nal at the same time. Our goal is al­ways to surprise the au­di­ence.”


“From the be­gin­ning, it was a very sen­si­tive thing to de­sign.” Bal­let Jazz de Mon­treal artis­tic di­rec­tor Louis Ro­bitaille says of Dance Me

Bal­let Jazz de Mon­treal re­hearses Dance Me, a show fo­cus­ing on the mu­sic of Leonard Co­hen.

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