The first thing you notice when watching Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal is that the company embraces individuality. There are plenty of interesting haircuts and colors among this crew, not the least of which is lead dancer Céline Cassone’s screaming red mane. The second thing that becomes evident is that the company has its greatest impact when they are all on stage together. That is when the sum of the parts exceeds any individual dancer’s talents. They radiate physicality, moving with an exciting combination of loose, slinky modern language that rolls fluidly through their spines and taut, controlled classical technique that many of them have trained in extensively. Taken all together it is exhilarating to watch.

Céline Cassone and Mark Francis Caserta in <i>Mono Lisa</i> © Alan Kohl
Céline Cassone and Mark Francis Caserta in Mono Lisa
© Alan Kohl

Rodrigo Pederneiras’s Rouge was a sort of homage to indigenous Americans but I don’t know if they would approve of the pas de deux in which women seem to be sexually dominated in a particularly degrading manner. Simulating mounting women from behind and flopping them around like ragdolls is plain disrespectful. Waving it off as an expression of “power struggles between the dominant and the dominated” as it says in the publicity materials, doesn’t excuse this type of thing. The women wore buckskin style dresses and there were painted faces plus plenty of nature references in the Grand Brothers score including throat singing, thunder, birds, etc. The style of choreography had the dancers moving almost constantly and pretty quickly, rotating on and off stage presumably to let them rest a bit. They worked around their centers of gravity with lots of changes of direction and jumps that left them suspended in the air. I admired their tremendous effort and heart even though I didn’t especially feel this piece. There were some fine individual performances. Gemma Freitas and Céline Cassone engaged in a great duet while Vivi-Ann Kraeling gave great dynamic emphasis to her solos.

Itzik Galili’s Mono Lisa featured Céline Cassone with Mark Francis Caserta in a duet that was set to typewriter noises that must have seemed quaint to younger people in the audience. It was impressive partnering with Caserta whipping Cassone around and overhead and showing off her considerable flexibility. Caserta’s dancing was very good here, whilst he was powerful and showed great control. Cassone is incontrovertibly the star of this company and she’s worth going out of your way to see anytime, in anything. This piece suffered from too much of everything happening at the same tempo and at the same level of overheated energy. I would have appreciated slower adagio moments to provide contrast. Too much force thrown against the wall resulted in visual fatigue and made Cassone’s terrific technique begin to look common.

Kosmos a work by Andonis Foniadakis, again showed that the company is at its best in ensemble dancing. As in Rouge, there was a relentless onslaught of movement but this was considerably less enjoyable here. At times Foniadakis rotated the dancers on and off stage in pairs about once a minute, seemingly interminably. They would dash around, jumping up and down, work up a good lather and then run off to take oxygen while the next pair came on and did the same. But when the whole group was on stage it really gained the vitality that makes this company fun to watch. I was ready to call Kosmos a complete washout until Jeremy Coachman came on and danced a solo that convincingly portrayed a man coming apart at the seams with frenetic shaking. He was at the point of complete unraveling when he suddenly stopped and something truly interesting happened. The stage went dark and video static was projected on the dancers which rendered them as faceless shapes, moving together and apart. The tempo of movement slowed and we were able to see pure movement with feeling only displayed through physical intention. The choreography of this section was not especially great but the idea was captivating.

Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal should think about changing its name to something that better describes who they are now. Whatever jazz related dancing they used to do is long behind them and this is now a thoroughly contemporary company. It’s a powerful ensemble that shares a wonderful esprit de corps and smoothly combines modern and classical technique. Even an outstanding star dancer like Céline Cassone doesn't overshadow what they do as a whole. This program of dances wasn’t particularly inspiring but you couldn’t help but love their effort and excitement.

***11