Ballets Jazz Montréal offers an homage to the legacy of Leonard Cohen

Les Ballets Jazz presents Dance Me at the National Arts Centre featuring the music of Leonard Cohen.

Three years ago Louis Robitaille was on tour in Europe when headquarters called.

Headquarters was the office at Ballets Jazz Montréal (BJM) and they wanted to know if Robitaille had an idea for a project to mark Montreal’s 375th birthday.

“It took me about two seconds,” said the artistic director of BJM. He suggested a dance piece built around the music of Leonard Cohen.

The idea of a work based on Cohen dates back to the late 1980s when Robitaille was a dancer with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.

Leonard Cohen.

“I met him when I was in another life, when I was young. He had just released the album I’m Your Man. And I became a fan from then on.

“Of course I knew his music before, but I became a real fan from this point. I was still dancing at Les Grands Ballets thinking that one day I would create something out of his music.

Cohen was alive when Robitaille’s project started. The company approached him about two and a half years ago to seek is permission to use his work.

“Nothing would have been done without his approval. This was very clear from the beginning.”

The BJM project was to be a “testimony” to Cohen’s work which is so associated with Montreal.

“It became really clear to me that the idea for this piece would be the life cycle. I associated that with the seasons. And, in this project, I did put a fifth season, which was the end of a life.”

But Robitaille wasn’t expecting the inevitable to happen so soon.

When Cohen died Nov. 7, 2016, “it was a big shock. We were in contact with his lawyer and agent a few days before and he was fine. Then suddenly, we were one of first ones to know the news. I could not believe what had happened. I thought he was immortal.

“I know from people who were close to him that he was working that day. It is amazing to know that he worked until the end on other projects.”

There is great appeal in Cohen’s legacy for Robitaille.

“The words, his comments, the way he analysed the world, his sense of humour … there are many Leonard Cohens. He was someone of substance.

“I’m often in my car and there is all kinds of music in the car. When you listen to Cohen’s music you want to fly away, he just carries you.”

To bring the work to fruition Robitaille commissioned prominent playwright and director Éric Jean, choreographers Andonis Foniadakis, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Ihsan Rustem and musical director Martin Léon. The piece features 14 performers in the impressionistic tribute to Cohen.

The piece finally debuted in Montreal last December in the midst of a year-long celebration of Cohen’s life which includes a highly popular exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal which will run until April.

The reaction in Montreal to BJM’s Dance Me very positive, but for Robitaille the pressure of putting the show on was immensely stressful.

“It was really emotional to perform it in Montreal. If Cohen would have still been alive it would have been another of our creations about a great artist.” But when he died, “suddenly we realized the pressure of it. Oh my God, I almost got really sick. You feel so little compared to him. The responsibility of it was scary.”

He says he didn’t really start to relax until a couple of days after opening night.

“Obviously it has worked and I survived quite well. But it did some damage. We were in Toronto after Montreal and I was dead, exhausted, wiped. It took me a month to just emerge again.

“You put all that energy for three years into a project, of course, but the last year was really difficult.”

Now he is at peace with the piece, helped along especially by emails and comments from the audiences who have seen the work.

“It’s a gift. You read them and tears come to your eyes. People were just sharing their memories. It was really touching. After all why do we do this if not to share with people. If you do a good thing or a right thing you feel you did your job.”

Robitaille also feels the pride that all Montrealers seem to have in Cohen and his legacy.

“Cohen has been (connected to Montreal) for this entire time. There is a lot of emotion and attachment to him. As long as  humans are on the earth there haven’t been that many great individuals who have made history and, I believe, Cohen is one  of them. And he is from here, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.”

The piece will be performed in Southam Hall Friday and Saturday nights and then it will travel to France. Next stop … The World.

“It is the biggest production in the history of the company. Somebody told me the other day that we have an obligation to perform this around the world. And so we will. I hope this production will have a long life.”

Robitaille says BJM continues to work on the piece.

“We are never happy, we always want to make things better. We are thinking, too, of other versions … maybe be bigger, maybe lighter. We want to perform it as much as we can.”

Where: Southam Hall

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.