Matthew Paluch sees Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal’s Dance Me
|Company||Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal|
|Venue||Sadler’s Wells, London|
|Date||10 February 2023|
The first few seconds on arriving at a theatre speak volumes, and Friday night at Sadler’s Wells for Dance Me by Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal screamed ‘music crowd’. Opening night was the 7th, so perhaps all the dancey lot had been and gone already. And, of course, the music set makes perfect sense when you become aware that Dance Me is all set to the music of the Canadian poet, musician and legend that is Leonard Cohen.
Conceived by Louis Robitaille, director of Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal from 1998 until 2020, and blessed by Cohen before his death, Dance Me (2017) brings three choreographers together to work their magic with Cohen’s: Andonis Foniadakis, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, and Ihsan Rustem. Pretty strong stuff.
80 minutes straight through, the piece aims to bring Cohen’s profound prose even more to life than it already is, but in reality it’s an equally successful and confusing show. The production level can’t be questioned: slick, choreographic light design by Cédric Delorme-Bouchard and Simon Beetschen; powerful projections by Hub Studio – Gonzalo Soldi, Thomas Payette and Jeremy Fassio; and Eric Jean’s Dramaturgy and Stage Direction supports clear, structural pace and originality throughout. And the dancers are absolutely top-notch, in both skill and commitment.
Choreographically it’s frustrating though.
Nowhere in the show info can one find out which choreographers did which sections. This I find unhelpful and disrespectful. The evening wouldn’t exist without the content, Cohen included, but his name and visual presence (black suit and hat) are everywhere. Movement without identity loses value immediately for me, and more importantly, it just doesn’t seem fair on the creatives.
I mentioned pace already, but it’s too much most of the time. The first 30-40 minutes literally don’t stop. Relentless movement. And when something lacks range, it starts to be void of purpose, and consequently interest. That’s where I was about 10 mins in, and it didn’t really resolve itself.
We get moody solos, melodramatic duets, and manic group numbers. They feature boxes, snowfall, specific limb focus, and Bōjutsu sticks. Silhouette is a regular occurrence, as is strobe and the blinding of the audience. The production bombardment doesn’t give up working like engagement kryptonite. Somehow the denser the content the more background it becomes, and we never seem to get real stillness or contemplation offered, which is a big problem as an observer.
Language-wise it’s simultaneously unremarkable and highly skilled. We see a lot of this ‘style’ nowadays. Ironically, there’s very little direct relation to either ballet or jazz from Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal. It’s more of a somewhat commonplace, uncodified ‘something’. There are runs, slides, falls, whacks, releases to the floor, rolls, tumbles, and detailed partnering work, but bizarrely very little to savour as there’s no time to. The bigger point is that the movement language hasn’t developed from an existing technique and isn’t (yet?) identifiable enough to be considered a choreographic style within a genre. The latter proposition being even more salient when considering the content in question has been created by three different makers, and yet has already blended into one, indistinguishable mass. Eek.
I’m also pretty much over the type of duet/partner work this kind of piece offers. It’s often very samey: overtly moody for no apparent reason, and sees the female dancer hardly ever touch the floor, generally with legs akimbo. It becomes rapidly uninteresting. It lacks equilibrium. Democracy. And therefore, possible new inquiry. It feels very 2017 – and that isn’t a compliment. Can we evolve in supposedly modern work already, please?
There’s a very convincing lip-synching moment. It’s textbook in style: overlit, with a lone chair. Chanteuse enters and begins. I was sat there thinking, ‘This should be naff, but it isn’t.’ Then the real confusion sets in… ‘Hold on, that dancer is actually singing!’ and she (Astrid Dangeard) proceeds to offer a very simple, genuine, endearing rendition of So Long, Marianne. Later she’s joined by another dancer to perform Hallelujah. This works less well. Hallelujah needs Cohen.
I left the theatre more immersed in Cohen appreciation, but I didn’t learn anything new about dance, or what it could do to elevate his canon. You win some, you lose some. Music crowd = winners. Certain members of dancey crowd = not sold.
Note: I also don’t get Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal’s company member hierarchy. Out of the 15 dancers, one is a Guest and one is a Principal, while the rest are Artists. This feels very old-fashioned. Inherently, ballet companies are pyramid-structured – think Versailles – so let’s not use it elsewhere if it’s not imperative. Let’s promote equitable rigour in dance where we can.
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers’ Teaching Diploma in 2007, and is currently on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.