When the Straight reaches Louis Robitaille, his company, BJM, has spent most of the week battling severe weather problems. It took the legendary Montreal dance troupe four days to get a flight from Germany across the Atlantic to perform in storm-ridden Halifax, only to find itself caught in the next big whiteout, which hit Moncton almost as soon as the group arrived.
“We will keep the performance today but the city’s completely paralyzed,” the artistic director of almost two decades tells the Straight over the phone from his headquarters in Montreal. “We travel a lot and for the last few years we’ve gone through many challenges. When there was the terrorist attack in Paris, we were in Paris. When there were floods in New York with Hurricane Sandy, we were there.”
In keeping with the notion that everything happens for a reason, the latter cataclysmic event, which cancelled out five nights at the Joyce Theater in 2012, spurred a new direction for Robitaille—one that, even to this day, drives the company with a stormy energy that sets it apart.
“I was in the wind and the rain and I thought the energy was fabulous,” the artist enthuses. “It came to me to create that same energy in dance. It came to me that there’s that human capacity: when you think you’ve reached your limit, you always reach farther.
“So it became about physical challenge and execution, to find the resources you need to drive the performance.”
Robitaille’s trick, as he has searched the world for hot up-and-comers who can unleash that new energy, has been to achieve those kinds of physical challenges while retaining BJM’s bright, positive polish.
Those international choreographic talents are on bold display in the DanceHouse show BJM is about to bring to Vancouver. But first, a quick history lesson. When it launched in 1972, the company called Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal drew a lot of inspiration from that J-word in its name. Today, it’s carved out a place as a cutting-edge company that has tapped such names as Crystal Pite, Aszure Barton, and Barak Marshall.
Finding the best new choreographers has become more and more of a challenge, Robitaille relates.
“There’s something more or less in fashion about non-dance, conceptual dance, intellectual dance,” says Robitaille, stressing BJM is a troupe “that dances”. “People know the company and expect a lot from us. I have to find great choreographers and what’s very important is the chemistry between the artist and the dancers. We are also looking for a singular, unique voice.”
On the program here, look for a frenzied, high-speed snapshot of urban life in Greek choreographer Andonis Foniadakis’s Kosmos; the near-acrobatic, factory-set duet Mono Lisa by Israeli sensation Itzik Galili; and the tribal ode to indigenous peoples, Rouge, by Roberto Pederneiras of Brazil’s Grupo Corpo.
The pieces feature physical challenges all their own, but what will strike you most seeing the works is how Robitaille’s famously honed, charismatic dancers are able to shape-shift from piece to radically different piece.
“This group is quite special,” Robitaille says. “Each one of them is really strong…But there’s harmony within the group that is quite special.
“I danced myself for more than 30 years and, still, watching them and what people ask from them is special,” he adds. “But it seems natural for them! My jaw’s dropping all the time.”
DanceHouse presents BJM at the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday and Saturday (February 24 and 25).