BJM blazes a fresh path at 40
BJM, or Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, may be hitting Vancouver as part of its 40th anniversary tour, but the legendary Canadian company is certainly not showing its age.
These days, it’s known around the world for showcasing some of the hottest young choreographers in Canada and on the planet right now. Look no further than the exciting, wildly varied program it’s bringing here, which features the gestural wit of Barak Marshall, the aggressive intensity of Cayetano Soto, and the hypnotic grace of Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Millepied.
“I felt that, yes, of course it’s an anniversary and it was time to make some reference to the past, but my theme was also the present and future,” explains BJM artistic director Louis Robitaille from Montreal, where he has led the company since 1998.
To understand what sets BJM apart, it helps to know Robitaille. He actually studied at Les Ballets Jazz’s former school in the early 1970s, but soon left to focus on ballet, becoming the golden-maned star at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in the ’80s and early ’90s. Later, when he came to the helm of Ballets Jazz, it had already started evolving toward more contemporary work. What he brought was rigorous technique and an eye for dancers. But interestingly, unlike others who lead troupes, he is not a choreographer himself.
“Having different choreographers here—to me that’s the beauty of being a repertoire company,” he says. “BJM is challenged by this: you need to adapt yourself to the personality and the movement.”
The choreography is important, but as a former dancer himself, Robitaille always puts his 13 performers first. He chooses them meticulously, each year searching through more than 200 or 300 applications and seeing up to 150 in auditions around the world.
“Everybody is very important, and for me, since the beginning of the company, the essence of BJM was always the artists,” he says, then adds with a laugh: “Look, I’m a dinosaur now. I come from a period when the dancers were the star and now the choreographers are the star. I don’t agree with this very much. When you go to see a performance, who do you see? The artists who are on-stage.”
True enough, but Robitaille also has an incredible eye for spotting choreographers on the rise—and for mixing them into a program.
For the show here, the Spanish-born Soto’s Fuel sets its frantic, restless movement to Julia Wolfe’s industrial-sounding string orchestra piece of the same name. Meanwhile, Millepied, who will be named head of the famed Paris Opera Ballet in 2014, created Closer in France for dance star Céline Cassone, who later joined BJM.
“Fuel is full of tension and sometimes even disturbing, and then the second piece, Closer, is 17 minutes of purity—that’s the moment of grace,” Robitaille says.
But it’s the evening’s final work, Marshall’s surreal Harry, that has been generating the most buzz. The Israeli-American choreographer, musician, and Harvard grad has set the piece—which follows the title character’s absurd, doomed love life—to everything from vintage jazz to Israeli folksongs.
“Barak is a very special guy. He did something very close to his personality, which is ballet theatre,” Robitaille says. “The movement is very close to sign language, where every gesture has a meaning.”
With its historical allusions and old jazz, Harry is in some ways a nod to BJM’s past. But it and the rest of the program are also a sign of where the Canadian company is going. Says Robitaille proudly: “All three of these choreographers are the people who will be influencing the future of dance.” They will, and the artists at BJM.
BJM is at the Playhouse in a DanceHouse presentation on Friday and Saturday (February 15 and 16).