LEAPING TO LEONARD
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.