Dance me to the stage: These choreographers are channeling the feeling of Leonard Cohen

Before Leonard Cohen died last November, he gave a tip of his trademark fedora to Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal to stage a show danced entirely to his songs.

The elaborate dance tribute is Montreal troupe BJM's most ambitious project to date

Kennedy Henry and Andrew Mikhaiel in Dance Me. (Marc Montplaisir)

Before Leonard Cohen died last November, he gave a tip of his trademark fedora to high-flying Montreal dance troupe, Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal (BJM), to stage an evening-length show danced entirely to his songs. The result — which Cohen regrettably will never see — is Dance Me, a mega-production involving three top choreographers and a backdrop of high-tech lighting design wizardry.

Dance Me has its premiere during a five-day run at Montreal's Place des Arts starting on December 5 with appearances in Toronto (December 15), Ottawa (February 23-24) and Sherbrooke, Que. (April 17) and likely stops over the coming years in Europe and Asia where BJM has often toured.

"It's the most ambitious project in BJM's 45-year history," says Louis Robitaille, artistic director since 1998. "Scenography, lighting design, video projection, props — it's a pretty complex show."

Saskya Pauzé-Bégin and Pier-Loup Lacour in Dance Me. (Kennedy Henry and Andrew Mikhaiel)

Over the years, Robitaille has presented some impressive productions featuring work by renowned choreographers like Crystal Pite, Aszure Barton and Mauro Bigonzetti. Two of Robitaille's earlier choreographers — Colombian-born Annabelle Lopez Ochoa (Zip Zap Zoom, 2009) and Greek-born Andonis Foniadakis (Kosmos, 2015) — contributed to Dance Me. Completing the triumvirate is Turkish-born Ihsan Rustem, with whom Robitaille long wanted to work.

Robitaille and veteran stage director Éric Jean chose 16 songs — "our favourites" — from seven Cohen albums. Three came from his last album, You Want It Darker, including "Steer Your Way," for which Cohen was recently nominated posthumously for a 2017 Grammy.

Leonard Cohen insisted we not limit ourselves to his greatest hits or to his first album where you find 'Suzanne' and 'So Long, Marianne.' We made a point of going through all his albums to get an overall picture.- Louis Robitaille, BJM artistic director

"Leonard Cohen insisted we not limit ourselves to his greatest hits or to his first album where you find 'Suzanne' and 'So Long, Marianne,'" said Robitaille. "We made a point of going through all his albums to get an overall picture."

Of course, "Suzanne" and "So Long, Marianne" are in the show. Included, too, is the iconic "Dance Me to the End of Love." Rustem choreographed it as a series of brief romantic duets between a male soloist and several female enchantresses who then abandon him. A male friend consoles him.

"I spent a lot of time reading the poetry behind the songs," said Rustem, speaking before a recent rehearsal run-through. "My biggest challenge had to do more with his poetry than with his music."

Fondiadakis, meanwhile, concentrated more on creating a musical flow.

"Sometimes I treat even his words more like feelings and sensations based on the sound of the voice and how it rhymes, but not in a logical way. Why not give an unexpected point of view to let the audience wonder that maybe there's a hidden pulse?"

Céline Cassone and Alexander Hille in Dance Me. (Marc Montplaisir)

At times as a counterpoint to a song's quiet lyricism, Fondiadakis created rapid, highly physical moves. Fans of BJM's characteristic flash have plenty to savour throughout Dance Me: challenging lifts, sinuously gyrating bodies and fast-paced entrances and exits. Even for BJM's super-fit dancers, the show is a 75-minute workout.

Dance Me moves from song to song in no chronological order, and though a figure in a familiar long, black coat and fedora makes periodic appearances, there is no attempt to draw a Cohen biography.

"Leonard Cohen didn't want to show his life's story," said Jean, who staged dramatic plays as artistic director of Montreal's Théâtre de Quat'Sous for 12 years. "We didn't go into his personal life. Instead of a narrative arc, we've tried to create an emotional one with scenes that represent his sensual side, his relation to women and also his thoughts on war, disasters, social issues and religion. In a sense, there's a picture of the whole man because he was so present in his work."

Last February, the show generated controversy in the dance world when BJM announced that it had bought the exclusive world rights to dance to Cohen's music for five years. Given the high expense of mounting Dance Me, BJM did not want competing dance tributes.

"Without exclusive rights, we would have risked sinking this project," said Robitaille. "It's important that people know that Monsieur Cohen approved two projects — ours and the one at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art."

The Museum's Cohen exhibit, which runs until April 9, 2018, has a live solo by Clara Furey danced in silence.

"We hoped that Leonard Cohen might live to see our show," said Robitaille, "but life decided otherwise."

Dance Me. December 5-9, Place des Arts, Montreal; December 15, Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto; February 23-24, National Arts Centre, Ottawa; April 17, Centre Culturel de l'Université de Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke.


Victor Swoboda is a long-time writer of the arts. He is based in Montreal.


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