Review by Sam Waite
The catalogues, and even lives, of famous figures are increasingly prevalent as source material for stage works. This has taken many different forms, from plays about tragic stars (End of the Rainbow) to original stories with familiar songs (Mamma Mia!) and even biographies peppered with the subject’s work (Beautiful). With Dance Me, Ballets Jazz Montréal have opted to largely put aside the life of prolific writer and singer Leonard Cohen, instead interpreting his poetry and lyricism through dance.
Three choreographers worked on the piece, collaborating to create a cohesive evening of fluid, emotive modern dance. Andonis Foniadakis, Anabelle Lopez Ochoa, and Ihsan Rustem have created such a seamless, united set of dance numbers that they could have been created by one mind – in this sense, their work feels fully collaborative with the late Cohen, his words being the uniting factor of this trio’s contributions. Guided by the concepts and initial ideas of Louis Robitaille and stage director Eric Jean, the team here have created an 80 minute delight which will be accessible and enjoyable even for those of us with little (or even no) real knowledge of modern dance.
A troupe of 15 dancers bring the choreography to life, their movements precise yet fluid as they dive into the emotions of the songs themselves. Particularly strong moments come during “Boogie Street”, here a sensual tour-de-force with a particularly lustful (implied) ending.
Another highlight is the performance accompanying the title song, “Dance Me to The End of Love” – a male dancer connects beautifully with an array of women one by one, before becoming overcome by his failures in love and being, quite literally, supported by a friend. The friend makes a quick exit when a final woman appears, one with whom our hero dances a particularly passionate pas de deux before gracefully exiting.
I couldn't quite work out whether there was an overarching story to be told. While not a fault of the production or any member of the creative team, this was the singular element that created a sense of inaccessibility. However, the individual pieces and visually exciting transitions from one to the next kept the stories behind each dance number connected, helping to distract from the initial confusion of whether or not there’s a larger story to follow.
Hub Studio provide the stunning video design, wherein the dancers are accompanied by pounding rain, a video of a dancer donned in Cohen’s classic black coat and hat, and at one point a pair of Rocky Horror-esque lips, soon joined by a line of smaller mouths below. These effects help to elevate the performances rather than distract from them, helping to further clarify the abstract nature of dance as a means through which to express emotion. Likewise, Cédric Delorme-Bouchard and Simon Beetshcen’s lighting works to great effect, often being used to light only a fraction of the stage, creating either an emotional closeness or a sense of entrapment as required by the work.
Despite Cohen’s passing prior to this show’s 2017 premiere, his presence is deeply felt in several deeply meaningful ways. Thanks to sound designer Guy Fortin, his voice both when singing and reciting his poetry blends seamlessly with the instrumentation, never being overbearing or intruding on the dancing itself. Moments where poetry is overlayed with or placed alongside Cohen’s music feel natural, like the words themselves have been choreographed to even more than the music. Cohen gave the material his blessing prior to his death, and the repeated motif of a performer in the black hat and coat wandering through scene changes feels like him re-exploring his own extraordinary catalogue.
The finale, in which “Hallelujah” (perhaps his most famous song, and a natural closer) is sung by two members of the company, feels like a cathartic and wholly earned moment for all involved. As the cast lower themselves for a final moment of moving in perfect unison, you get the sense that they’re giving thanks for the many gifts this celebrated and incredibly talented man left to the world.
Dance Me – Music by Leonard Cohen plays at Sadler’s Wells Theatre until February 11th, with a final, one-off performance on February 14th.
Photos by Rolando Paolo Guerzoni