BJM shows off versatility in Vancouver, from the hard-edged to the serene

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      A DanceHouse presentation. At the Playhouse on Friday, February 15. No remaining performances

      For a company on its 40th anniversary tour, BJM (Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal) does not look like it’s in a nostalgic mood.

      The program it brought here was largely bold and cutting-edge, bookended by Spanish choreographer Cayetano Soto’s relentlessly hard-driving Fuel and Barak Marshall’s absurdist theatre-dance work Harry. But it was the middle, most “traditional” work among the three—Benjamin’s Millepied’s pure, romantic Closer, in all its balletic grace—that won the audience’s heart.

      Millepied, the former New York City Ballet star (aka Natalie Portman’s main squeeze and pending Paris Opera Ballet head) has fashioned a gorgeous, fluid ode to love. It’s an endurance test of lifts and twists that must look effortless and as light as helium—as it did in the capable hands of Alexander Hille and the company’s magnetic, scarlet-haired star, Celine Cassone. To Philip Glass’s hypnotic layered piano arpeggios, the pair intertwine, embrace, and exult in soaring lifts. Everyone was left breathless by it, and there didn’t seem to be a person who wasn’t raving about it at intermission.

      But here’s an argument for the hard-edged Fuel. Artistic director Louis Robitaille said before the show that it was the program’s nod to the “future of dance”, and it’s hard to disagree. While Fuel wasn’t as pleasurable a piece as Closer—and never was meant to be—Soto is an exciting choreographic force, pushing the human body to extremes. Legs jut out like mantises’, alternately extending like levers and bending up like broken doll parts. Soto has captured our unrelenting, high-speed, urban lives in restless dance. On a stark stage with an industrial tangle of standing spotlights as the set piece, glassy-eyed dancers scribble the air, lunge, and twist, but never seem to complete or resolve their moves before they’re on to the next. It leaves you uncomfortable, maybe even distressed, the effect heightened by Julia Wolfe’s speedily screeching strings. But Fuel has a maniacal beauty all its own—a very different one than the classic Closer—and it could only have been set on dancers with BJM’s strength and courage.

      Expectations were high for the buzzed-about finale, rising Israeli-American star Marshall’s audacious, blackly comic Harry, but it had mixed success. The ambitious whirlwind of vintage jazz and Middle Eastern and Eastern European folk music made references to life and death, war, and the ongoing battles between women and men. Some of Marshall’s theatrical touches were brilliant—say, the recurring use of surreal, popping red balloons as guns—but the numerous spoken parts became interruptions between soaring dance numbers. When it got going, the choreography was inspired—as gesturally rich as sped-up sign language mixed with the soulful, earth-bound group work of Marshall’s Batsheva Dance Company background.

      It’s not often you get this much diversity in a night of dance—or performers honed enough to handle all its mood swings.  So whether or not you favoured the safer work or not, you had to admit a troupe this insanely versatile has many more decades in it to come.