When Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal artistic director Louis Robitaille was offered the chance to create something epic for Montreal’s 375th celebrations, he knew immediately what he wanted to do.
“It took me between, maybe, 30 to 60 seconds to put together the idea of BJM and Leonard Cohen. And it’s been quite a journey ever since,” the artist says, reached on a ferry en route to Vancouver after Dance Me, the company’s ode to the legendary poet-singer, has just enjoyed three sold-out shows in Victoria.
Robitaille, the former platinum-haired star at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens who’s run BJM since 1998, is referring to the massive effort required to secure Cohen’s permission before he died, as well as the rights to his music. Dance Me is the biggest project in the company’s 46-year history. The multimedia endeavour cost $500,000 to make, and took three years to bring to fruition—including six intensely focused months of creation, pulling the ever-touring BJM off the road for the entire period.
“Mr. Cohen remembered well the Ballets Jazz de Montréal, and the fact that we were both from Montreal appealed to him,” Robitaille recalls of the artist, who died in November 2016, before getting the chance to see Dance Me. “For all of us on the project, we were very emotionally involved. We wanted to do something not only exceptional but something right for Mr. Cohen and, of course, when he passed away the pressure and the stress was even more. Our goal was to reach that canon, that monument of Leonard Cohen.”
Cohen’s stipulations also happened to fall in line perfectly with Robitaille’s own vision for the dance project: that it should be about the music and not his private life, and that it should be more than a string of his old hits like "Suzanne” and “So Long Marianne”.
“It was our luck that his last album [You Want It Darker] and songs went darker, and music critics considered it a masterpiece,” Robitaille says. “We use three songs from that album, so we really use songs from the beginning, from 1967, to the very last one.”
BJM, known for dancing the work of the hottest contemporary choreographers on the planet, brought in three cutting-edge artists to create the show. Greek-born Andonis Foniadakis (whose Kosmos Vancouver saw BJM perform at DanceHouse in 2017) took a physically charged approach, digging into the meaning of Cohen’s lyrics, Robitaille says, while Colombian-born Annabelle Lopez Ochoa put a more lyrical flow to the movement. As for Turkish-born, U.K.–raised Ihsan Rustem, he’s working with the company for the first time—and he’s someone Robitaille has long sought to bring in. Rustem has choreographed “Dance Me to the End of Love” as a series of revolving romantic duets between a male soloist and different women who then abandon him.
But the show is about much more than Cohen’s well-known take on love. Throughout, video projections evoke the grand cycles of the seasons—and allude movingly to the mortality that Cohen so often wrote about before his death.
“Whether it’s Victoria or the many different countries where we have been, the reception is magical everywhere,” Robitaille says of the show that elicited standing ovations when it debuted in Montreal in 2017. “I haven’t seen reactions like these before. And I think it’s because with this show, something like grace happens in the evening—and that grace happens because a strong aspect of it is that Mr. Cohen is not with us. But it’s a celebration, not sad.”
Dance Me is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday and Friday (November 22 and 23).