David Mead talks to Ballets Jazz Montreal artistic director Alexandra Damiani about Dance Me, featuring the iconic music of Leonard Cohen, which has its UK premiere at Sadler’s Wells in February.
“It is a meeting of the perfect company, based in Montreal, with Leonard Cohen, this singer, writer, composer, artist, who was also born in the city. It is a beautiful homage to the man and his music,” says Damiani of Dance Me.
She also admits to being thrilled to be finally bringing the work to London, where Cohen was popular with audiences, if not always with critics. The city was a big part of his career, she observes, noting that his highly successful 2009 album, Live in London marked his emergence from what was maybe a darker chapter. Two numbers from that recording, ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ and ‘Boogie Street’, appear in the show.
Having first come to prominence in the early ‘60s as a poet and novelist, Cohen shifted his attention to music in the latter years of the decade after moving to New York, although Montreal never forgot its son. Released in 1967, his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, quickly became a cult hit. His subsequent influence on the music industry has been compared to that of his contemporaries Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Many of his songs have been covered successfully by other artists.
While Dance Me is very much a dance show, Damiani says the way it supports Cohen’s art with multimedia makes it a journey that nourishes all the senses.
“The energy of the dancers, the talent, their desire to entertain and share, mixed with Leonard Cohen, who my grandparents used to listen to. It brings generations together. It is exactly what I love about art: that bringing together.”
Created under the directorship of Damiani’s predecessor, Louis Robitaille, the show is very ambitious. Its creation was fraught with risks. For a start, Cohen is huge, says Damiani, not only in Montreal, but everywhere. “I still don’t think I grasp just how big of an icon he is but, as I’ve been working on this show, touring all over the world, I can tell you, he’s big!”
Then, unusually, it brings together three choreographers who were already well-established artists, clear about their vision and how to realise it. “I do think the process was quite hard, although I was not there at the time. However, the result is pretty amazing. It’s quite seamless, actually. To me it’s obvious now, I can’t see it with fresh eyes, but a lot of people say they can’t tell who choreographed what.”
However, look closely and you can see who created each number, she believes. “We have Andonis Foniadakis from Greece who brings a lot of energy, a lot of life force, a lot of steps that splash everywhere. Then there is Ihsan Rustem, originally from Turkey but now based in Switzerland. He is very drawn to the lyrics, to the words, to the stories, to the origins of the songs. His is a way more grounded and, in a way, a more gestural vocabulary. Then there is the voice of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa who is just amazing. The contrast of the three makes the evening very lively.”
Another potential trap is the power of the music itself. Damiani says that that, when you add dance to music that is already so rich and full of feeling, it sometimes struggles to match the beauty of the song and, because of that, detracts from it. And with music that has lyrics, the dance can also get too literal, thus cheapening it.
“For me, the music of Leonard Cohen can stand on its own. When I listen to it, I don’t feel something is missing. But the dance does find cracks in the music. Cohen once said that we need to find cracks in oneself to let the light in. The meeting of the dance with his really rich songs brings a new way, a fresh way to see them that is not literal or loud, or that takes away the poetry or the magic of the experience, or indeed anything from his art. There is a humility in the production that really feels like the dance is supporting and enhancing the experience of that music while still giving me space to feel my own journey, my own memories or whatever within it.”
Although Cohen had a big hand in selecting which songs were used, and even which recordings, he passed away as the show was being made, so never saw it. We will never know what he would have made of it, but Damiani says, “I like to think that he would be moved by it. You will see, in the show, there is a silhouette of Leonard Cohen. He walks through the evening with us. His presence is very strong.”
In many ways, Dance Me is also a reflection of the ethos of Ballets Jazz Montreal (BJM), which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last year. Originally founded by Geneviève Salbaing to create ballet to jazz music, its output has moved over the years to encompass more contemporary work. What has remained is a big emphasis on accessibility and never forgetting the public it dances for, says Damiani.
“The quality of the dancers is top notch. A lot of energy too, which I think is very much North America. And yet there is a pleasure of just dancing, of sharing. I find sometimes that contemporary dance can be, not elitist, but maybe a little bit difficult. BJM makes the point of including everyone; you could say, be entertaining in a way.”
“There are big questions there,” she continues. “Why do we put on shows? What is art? What is entertainment? Where does art start or end? When does it become entertainment? With Covid and the state the world is in, it sometimes feels like being director of a dance company is frivolous. But, deep down, what we are doing is very important work. We are creating a sense of uplift and hope, helping people to connect, to feel alive.”
Speaking passionately, she continues, “Contemporary dance is both art and a form of entertainment. It’s also for an audience and it’s important that we do not forget them. Sometimes BJM might be seen as maybe not serious or not deep enough but there is nothing more serious than taking care of art and of people, taking audiences on a journey that will transform them in one way or another, whether through memory or imagination or sharing something with strangers in a black box theatre. It sort of reminds me of rituals in a cave. Sharing some of that. I think it is a very important business.”
Linking those thoughts back to Dance Me, Damiani says that while it’s a show not afraid of entertaining with all its life, energy and dance, it does strike a balance. There are moments of breath that allow release. It still manages to give space for the audience to find their own interpretation, meaning or memories, and therefore participate in their own way.
“Dance Me allows Cohen’s music and songs to shine. It brings them alive. It’s full of poetry and elegance. I think it absolutely catches the man and the music, that’s why I say ‘homage’, but it is definitely also a celebration.”
Dance Me, presented by Ballets Jazz Montreal & Robomagic live, is at Sadler’s Wells, London from February 7-11, 2023. For tickets, visit premier.ticketek.co.uk (they are not available via the Sadler’s Wells website).
For more on ‘Dance Me’ by Ballets Jazz Montreal, visit www.bjmdanse.ca.