There are a number of clichés for weather, disasters, and showbusiness, but they rarely overlap. Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal were scheduled to open at the Joyce Theater on 30 October; instead, they joined the millions of people recovering from Hurricane Sandy that night. Just seven weeks later, New York had pieced itself back together and the company was finally able to take the stage.

Zero in On © Benjamin von Wong
Zero in On
© Benjamin von Wong

A pole with a few stage lights cuts diagonally from floor to ceiling for Zero in On, only a portion of the stage is lit and framed in darkness. By changing the dimensions and perspective of the space, Cayetano Soto (choreographer, lighting designer, and costume designer) narrows the audience’s focus onto the intricate duet at hand. And it’s easy to be amazed while watching Céline Cassone and Kevin Delaney slip in and out of unison. They play each detail in Philip Glass’ music with their bodies. Soto’s choreography calls for sharp angles, long extensions in attitude position and movements isolating each body part by the joint. Delaney partners Cassone as she spins on one knee, her legs bent in a diamond shape, and lifts her in one piece from the floor – gravity doesn’t seem to interfere in any way. Cassone crosses into the dark part of the stage once, to surprise the audience by breaking the only rule governing Zero in On. While Soto engineered every aspect of the piece to direct attention to his choreography, Cassone and Delaney’s performance demands undivided attention. For those few minutes, the rest of the world does not exist.

Night Box is wholly different, from the first impression to the last. Driving bass, a drum machine, and a strobe light bring the entire company to life and they tilt their heads in unison to the beat. Wen Wei Wang’s choreography explores different vignettes that take place under the cover of darkness, including a dance club’s hive-like atmosphere and numerous intimate smaller groupings. In one of the first duets, a man and woman pull and push away from each other, framing their partner’s face with their hands. The rest of the company snakes into the space in a line, single-file, arms up as though each is framing an invisible face in front of them. This ghostly chorus line repeated scrawls through Night Box, creating a sense of instability and giving the piece the illusion of time. To both BJM and Wang’s credit, no one duo or trio eclipses the others. Each dancer attacks the beat and style of their section with energy and strength. In the end, the bass fades to silence, the lights dim, and even the two dancers remaining on stage diminish. Wang’s conclusion is surprising in its restraint compared to the intensity that lead up to it.

After two knockout numbers, BJM launched into the final, surreal hit of the night. Harry, created by Israeli choreographer Barak Marshall, loosely follows the title character’s life. Harry is in love and he’s doomed, the ensemble chants to explain during a pause in music’s horns. Someone bursts a red balloon and Harry is dead. Suddenly the dancers are mourning him and dialogue breaks in again. Harry is killed and mourned repeatedly, each time delving into hilarity and more dancing; an absurd cycle.

Genders clash and reconcile throughout Harry and the men’s section is a full-on show of bravado, wide stances, and outspread arms. Their dance is assertive, with jaws jutting forward and sharp movements. The women match the men’s strength through cyclical movements, rocking over their feet in second position – one hand to their heart while the other is thrust overhead. The music vacillates between popular jazz-age sounds and Eastern European folk, adding another flavor to the choreography. World War II is attributed to an arrangement between ancient Greek deities before the dancers recreate a gut-wrenching battle scene with Harry on stage. Harry’s love life is a constant source of amusement as different partners dance through their frustrations with him. But when his beloved mourns his death after a tender duet the whole audience feels her loss. Harry has the emotional range of an epic but the narrative structure of a farce. At its heart, however, it is an incredible dance made more meaningful by the members’ artistry and expression. Harry does get his happy ending and the audience is treated to a visual celebration worthy of a Broadway finale. Grand extensions, spins, and leaps fly across the stage to Wayne Newton’s infamous Danke Schoen – the company’s collective tongues firmly in cheek.

Artistic Director Louis Robitaille states that one of his goals for the 40-year-old company is to “bring happiness where it is most needed”. Their program at the Joyce certainly accomplished that mission. These exquisite dancers set a standard for contemporary ballet.