There’s been a buzz around BJM, as Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal is known, under Louis Robitaille’s direction. He’s rebranded the group as a contemporary hothouse of style and passion, and the “‘jazz’ in the name,” according to a company blurb, now “refers more to a ‘jazzing up’ of classical ballet rather than a musical or dance style.” That jazzing up goes beyond classical ballet: as in many contemporary companies, BJM dancers work with choreographers from around the world whose movement vocabularies are wide.
The three pieces presented on a recent visit to Vancouver, part of BJM’s 40th anniversary season, showcase that range. Robitaille assembled an evening that was well paced, beautifully danced and if lightweight in terms of content, most audience members didn’t seem to mind, judging by the applause and good cheer that filled the Playhouse Theatre on opening night.
The choreographers – Cayetano Soto, Benjamin Millepied and Barak Marshall–were born in Spain, France and the United States respectively, but the three men have lived and worked all over. Soto has created widely in Europe and made inroads into the US; Millepied was a principal dancer with New York City Ballet before gaining fame as the choreographer on the Black Swan movie who married its star, Natalie Portman; and Marshall has been based in Israel, where he was Batsheva’s first resident choreographer in 1999.
Soto’s Fuel opens and pretty much continues with a blast of busy strings from American composer Julia Wolfe (his title comes from her score). The dance has its own abrupt pace alongside the music, and was driven by the impressive strength and flexibility of this highly trained troupe. The women, in particular, stand out: their extended legs look bionic at times, whether one is held up to an ear or both are split wide open to the sides. Fingers, too, tend to be spread wide and hard, as if they’re made of plastic, not flesh. Costumed by Soto in puffy white tops that leave legs and arms bare, these women are on full display.
The men, bare-chested in black pants, are less visible. It’s partly the long dark pants, but also the men are physically similar, so it’s harder to tell them apart than it is with the women, who range from tall to small, some with vivid hair colour. As well, the men are often involved with manipulating the women and it’s the manipulated bodies, especially when airborne, that draw the eye.
Throughout Fuel, the dancers continually rush on stage for an array of solos, duets and trios, and then rush back off, making it impossible to be sure of numbers, but I counted eleven performers during the bows. As for what exactly is fuelling their jerky, intense unease, according to the program note, it’s “a single substance that keeps the world moving restlessly: as if the dancers … were driven by one secret energy.” Maybe that should be two secret energies, since the men and women are clearly on two different teams here.
Millepied’s Closer, offering a change in pace and mood, is a romantic pas de deux built on a constant flow of movement by and between the dancers (Céline Cassone and Alexander Hille) who stay physically and emotionally connected. Closely following the music — Philip Glass’s piano score, Mad Rush — the flow of movement alternates between calm and turbulent. The neoclassical conservatism came as a surprise: Closer is like an homage to Balanchine, a sweet duet in which the woman is very well looked after by the man (a Balanchinean first principal). As in Soto’s piece, the female line is highlighted by the costume: she’s in a super-short, skimpy white slip designed to show the legs; he’s in a white T-shirt and loose grey pants that hide his. Surprisingly for this kind of traditional ballet pas de deux, Cassone doesn’t wear pointe shoes but, like all the BJM women, she has strong supple feet and her demi-pointe in soft slippers provides emphasis enough. Hille’s role is to be solid and calm, facilitating his partner’s expressive flow of movement. At one point, Hille holds the petite Cassone in a bear hug and walks her around the stage without her feet ever touching the ground. By the end, the couple lies flat on their backs, entwined, spent, and very very close.
Marshall’s Harry provided the crazy finale, a comic forty minutes that tells the story of the title character, a good man who defies the gods for the sake of love. So the chorus informs us, the eleven dancers who use word, song and dance to move the spoof along. Marshall, like others today (Aszure Barton comes to mind), has a free and easy approach to style. Here, Israeli folk dance provides the base, enlivened with jazz and everyday, sometimes comic gestures, all thrown together fast and furiously. The choreography is greatly coloured by the music, which ranges from Tommy Dorsey and the Andrews Sisters to Balkan Beat Box to Maria Callas. Costumes by Anne-Marie Veevaete are simple dresses for the women and casual suits for the men, in muted tones.
Harry’s music and dance are a mash-up, and that part works really well. We get the cheerful or cheesy American sentiments, the lively Israeli folk energy, the European high-art passion. Mash-up style doesn’t work so well for the story, though, which is vague and also too cute to carry the serious point about “conflicts and our ability to overcome them” noted in the program. Zeus and Hera share a recorded conversation about her not feeling well and wanting him to start a war; Harry dies by firing squad (red balloons bursting in a cloud of smoke provide the surreal firepower); and there’s a Cinderella spoof in which Harry, carrying an empty cooking pot, is approached by several women with lids that don’t fit. Finally, one brings a lid that does and he falls in love.
Fuel and Harry were made for BJM, and both show off the ensemble to great effect. Closer, originally performed in France by Cassone and a dancer from New York City Ballet, is more conservative fare, but was equally enthusiastically applauded. (Given Milliepied’s recently announced appointment as director of the prestigious Paris Opera Ballet, any work by him carries a certain profile and interest right now.) I was restless for a bit more bite, but for sure BJM gave us a fun night out.