Danse Lhasa Danse provides a feast for the senses

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At the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday, January 18

Saturday night’s performance of Danse Lhasa Danse brought the vibrancy and depth of Montreal’s music and dance communities here to illuminate the life and work of Lhasa de Sela. The tribute to the Mexican-American singer, who was only 37 when she died in 2010, featured 19 of her songs, blending elements of Mexican, French, Romani, and klezmer music. They were played in new arrangements by a superb quintet and four vocalists, and movingly interpreted by seven dancers and seven choreographers.

The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival event proved a feast for eye, ear, and soul. Despite the venue’s size and the number of artists, Danse Lhasa Danse was intimate and personal, drawing the sold-out audience into the heart of the songs and their writer, who appeared at times in photos and video on a screen. The musicians remained prominent on-stage, and within touching distance of the dancers. And though many songs were in Spanish, and one in French, language presented no barrier—the emotions in the music were sufficient.

In a 1997 interview with the Straight, Lhasa stated that she wanted “to be at the crossroads between beauty and danger”. In Danse Lhasa Danse, flamenco dancer Myriam Allard, one of the choreographers, evoked this in the opening “Intro”—a solo performed in a spotlight on the edge of darkness, without music save for the rapid-fire drumming of her heels. Whenever Allard danced, that same sense of danger was tangible. She interpreted “Pa’ llegar a tu lado” with a bata de cola, the traditional flamenco gown with long train that she cradled in her arms, tossed from side to side, and occasionally flaunted. As one of Lhasa’s sisters is a flamenco dancer, the piece was particularly apt.

Most of the choreography was for male-female couples, and required exceptionally strong and acrobatic artists. Movements were fast and fluid, with much lifting of bodies and twisting of limbs—suggesting the small circus that Lhasa’s two other sisters ran, and in which she sang. Kudos is due to Brazilian-born chanteuse Bïa, who danced a duet with Sébastien Cossette-Masse while singing “La Confession”, without sounding short of breath.

Of the other singers, Alejandra Ribera was closest to the elfin Lhasa’s smoky voice and style of delivery—eyes closed, fingers of one hand writhing expressively. Karen Young sang two solo songs with impressive agility. Alexandre Désilets, the only male singer, was the most arresting, and could have been Lhasa’s animus. Whereas she possessed a relatively low voice for a woman, Désilets’s is high for a man, and he sang the melancholic “De cara a la pared” flawlessly in falsetto.

Danse Lhasa Danse’s creator and staging director, Pierre-Paul Savoie, found a fine balance between maintaining a distinct identity for each piece and providing unity of style and purpose. He juggled the elements cleverly to keep rhythms and moods interesting. Textures and formats varied—five songs were without dancers, one was a duet, and five dances were solos. The entire company came on-stage for the finale, “Where Do You Go”, a title that tellingly lacks a question mark.

Savoie’s love and respect for Lhasa as an artist infused a masterly work that was sometimes perilous, but always passionate and beautiful.

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