Review: BJM’s Dance Me missing the magic of Cohen’s poetry

A look at Dance Me from Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal. Photo: Thierry du Bois / Cosmos Image

I have a dark confession: I’m not a fan of Leonard Cohen’s music. The poetry, sure. But that morose, monotone bass has just never touched me like it has so many others. I’m a terrible Canadian, I know. All of Montreal is probably disowning me as I write this.

So faced with watching a new tribute dance piece set to a jukebox score of Lenny’s greatest hits, I could only hope the choreography would soften my aversion, if not exactly make me a believer. But Dance Me, conceived by a trio of choreographers for Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, is a jumble of clichéd, repetitive images and shallow feeling, content to coast for 90 minutes on cheap thrills and exploited nostalgia. (The show was commissioned for Montreal’s 375th birthday celebrations, and work on it had started well before Cohen’s death in November 2016.)

Like too many cooks jostling in the kitchen, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Ihsan Rustem and Andonis Foniadakis serve up an undisciplined, superficial fusion of Cohen’s recurrent themes: love and sex, loss, conflict. The sensuality is unsubtle and crude: the opening numbers are an onslaught of wide-splayed legs, humping pelvises and butt grabbing. The dancers first march onstage wearing baggy black suits, but soon afterwards the men are shirtless, the women pantless. There’s the de rigueur Cohen stand-in, a solitary figure in a fedora and black overcoat, lurking in the background.

There are a few moments that stand out. The dancers throw themselves into the choreography’s daredevil spinning lifts like Olympic skaters. The passionate Suzanne duet for Céline Cassone and Alexander Hille produces some of the only honest emotion in the entire show. Tower of Song is by far the best group number, the ensemble interacting playfully with video projections and typewriter props.

The show cried out for that kind of wit and originality. Instead, we got more tableaux of beautiful but unengaging bodies writhing and grinding in their underwear, or inexplicably sparring with what look like pole dancing rods.

In the worst artistic decision of all, the show’s creators made the dancers sing two of Cohen’s most iconic ballads. So long, Marianne was only bland, but Hallelujah was like a bad night of karaoke, the lyrics unintelligible, the singer’s voice a nasally bleat.

Friday’s show at the NAC was sold out. The warm reception it received could be attributed to the many Cohen fans in the audience. But remove any sentimentality about the score and there isn’t anything of substance, leaving the rest of us, in Cohen’s words, vacant and deeply unimpressed.

Dance Me with BJM repeats Saturday night.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.