Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal’s Dance Me: paging Leonard Cohen

Montreal, Canada 4 decembre 2017. Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal nouveau spectacle DANCE ME. Photo Thierry du Bois / Cosmos Image

With the one-year anniversary of his death one month past, Montreal’s craze for all things Leonard Cohen shows no sign of abating. There was the five-night Jenny Holzer installation in Old Montreal, there’s the massive mural on Crescent Street, the ongoing exhibit at the MAC, and now the Ballets Jazz de Montreal’s most recent production.

I’m all for the continuing celebrations of our homegrown legend, but sometimes I feel like we’re missing the mark. Why, for example, is the mural on Crescent? Why not on St. Laurent, closer to where the famed singer-songwriter lived for so many years? And while some of the installations at the MAC are interesting and evocative, others feel like hero worship at best, and self-indulgent excuses for the artist’s own interests at worst.

The BJM’s Dance Me, which premiered last night at Théâtre Maisonneuve, falls somewhere between those two categories. In my experience, the BJM always come up short on depth of emotion while being abundant in physical prowess, and Dance Me is no exception. Featuring 15 or so of Cohen’s songs, including many of the famous ones (Suzanne, First We Take Manhattan, Dance Me to the End of Love, Halleluiah, So Long Marianne), but also some of the lesser known works (including Steer Your Way and the String Reprise of Treaty from his last album, You Want it Darker), Dance Me is at once an acrobatic tour de force, and a bland, meaningless, superficial display with seemingly little relation to the profound poetry that inspired it.

Don’t get me wrong: there are some beautiful moments. The duet for Suzanne is evocative, and there are erotic moments spread throughout the show that work well. The urban feeling, when dancers break into walking or running, for example, or the West Side Story effect of the men dancing in Lover Lover Lover, work well. The lighting is impressive—the snow and rain backdrops add to the feeling, or rather, add some feeling that should be adequately communicated by the choreography. I liked the two pieces that were sung, with no dance whatsoever (So Long Marianne and a partial version of Halleluiah). And the virtuosity of the dance itself is undeniably brilliant.

But in general, the choreography is almost constantly non-stop frenetic, in great contrast to the mood of most of Cohen’s oeuvre. There is very little dynamic variation. In the middle section there are some slower-moving pieces, and those provided some relief, but even then, try as I might I couldn’t find an ounce of emotive intensity anywhere on the stage or within myself. Often I found myself asking, “Why?” Why are all the dancers’ legs imitating synchronized swimming? It’s cute, but is it related to the song at all? Why are there animated lips projected on the backdrop mouthing the words to the song? Why are the dancers using poles as props? Why is there so little correlation between the profundity of Cohen’s poetry and the slick glossiness of the choreography and lighting?

It all looks interesting and flashy and breathless, but seems devoid of meaning, emotional expression, and connection to Cohen’s songs. At the end of the performance I thought that perhaps the idea behind the work was to suggest that as Cohen wrote and sang in his St. Laurent neighborhood, the rest of Montreal went about their business unaware of the legacy that was being created in their own backyard. But I doubt that’s what the creators had in mind.


Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal‘s Dance Me is at Théâtre Maisonneuve December 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9, at 8pm. Tickets $44-67, available here.