Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal seems a logical choice to create a tribute to one of this city’s most celebrated musical icons, Leonard Cohen. Like Leonard Cohen, BJM has been an indisputable part of the fabric of Montreal culture since the early 70s. The company has built its brand around a melding of pop and art and attracts a strong community of fans both here and internationally.

Céline Cassone and Alexander Hille © Thierry Du Bois - Cosmos Image
Céline Cassone and Alexander Hille
© Thierry Du Bois - Cosmos Image

Dance Me was created by three choreographers, Andonis Foniadakis from Greece, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa from Belgium and UK-born Ihsan Rustem. Choreographically their work was difficult to differentiate from one another, but they had several movement motifs in common: leggy développés, energetic lifts, ambitious male/female partnering, all of which combined to give the impression of a relentless frenzy of flailing arms and legs that didn’t let up for a good hour into the performance. The rare moments where the choreography finally let the audience breathe gave the poetry of Leonard Cohen’s music a chance to shine through. This in turn gave the audience enough space for an emotional response.

In the words of Mr Cohen, there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. In this particular case, I just wish the cracks had been a little bigger.

One point of innovation in this otherwise off-key interpretation was the strong lighting design; the show opened with dancers striding up and down-stage, the bright side lights creating a flickering, candlelight effect. It was a strong image to open with.

Principal dancer Céline Cassone is also worth mentioning for her excellent technique, focus and physique. With her bright red hair and impossibly bendy arches, she draws the eye and holds it without mercy.

BJM in <i>Dance Me</i> © Thierry du Bois – Cosmos Image
BJM in Dance Me
© Thierry du Bois – Cosmos Image

Costume-wise, Dance Me stuck to a fairly literal interpretation; the men donned Cohen’s signature trilby hat, the women mostly wore underwear and crumpled white shirts. The score included many of Cohen’s best-loved material; So Long Marianne, Dance Me to the End of Love, Hallelujah, and Suzanne (among others).

At its best, a tribute should convey the absolute truth of an artist’s work, hold it up to the light and show it from a fresh angle. A sage, poet, and lover, Leonard Cohen’s work rests on overarching themes of love, loss and death with unexpectedly dark twists that speak eloquently of the human condition in a way not many artists with his audience reach are able to muster. Ultimately, Dance Me failed to capture the essential truth of Cohen’s work and world.

Dance Me will undoubtedly find its audience of fans as it makes its way around the world. The show has already been performed in 45 cities in 10 countries on 3 continents, including a sold out 2017 season in Montreal. The standing ovation on opening night probably had more to do with Leonard Cohen than it did BJM, but perhaps that’s ok. An audience member in front of me tucked her silver tresses behind her ears, turning to her friend and said “thank you for sharing this wonderful night with me.”

The takeaway? People’s love for Leonard Cohen's music is powerful, and that in itself is a beautiful thing.

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