He was a poet, novelist, an observant Jew who became a Buddhist monk, and an unremitting student of the human experience. But Leonard Cohen was revered — and revered is the appropriate nomenclature, especially in his native Montreal — as a singer-songwriter. In a career that spanned five decades, he insightfully chronicled life and love, faith and mortality, despair and ecstasy in strikingly spare, reflective lyrics that philosophically probed what it means to be human. “He is considered one of the greatest artists of his time,” says Louis Robitaille, artistic director of Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal (BJM) since 1998. “He has touched so many people around the world.”
So when Robitaille proposed a dance evening to contribute to Montréal’s 375th anniversary celebration, an homage to the city’s most famous native son seemed ideal, and “Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me” was born. The 80-minute multimedia piece for 14 performers comes to Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre Oct. 25-26 through Global Arts Live. The presentation is part of BJM’s multiyear plan to take the work — the 45-year-old company’s largest, most ambitious, and at $500,000, most expensive to date — to venues around the world. (BJM has exclusive rights to Cohen’s music for dance/circus initiatives for five years, a major creative coup.)
Plans for “Dance Me” (titled after Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”) were put into motion just months before Cohen died at age 82 in November 2016. Initially skeptical of a dance evening set to his songs, he was assured by his agent that his music would be in good hands with the internationally renowned BJM, and he gave the project his blessing. One caveat was that the score chosen encompass his entire career and include not just classic hits, like “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah,” but lesser known songs. Robitaille winnowed Cohen’s significant output to 17 songs ranging from his 1967 debut record to his final album. “You Want It Darker” was released just 19 days before Cohen’s death, giving the music and the dance homage a poignant sense of immediacy.
“We had just started to create in the studio when he passed away,” Robitaille said in a recent phone interview, just before BJM took “Dance Me” to Brazil. “It was a shock, very sad news difficult to accept, and I still don’t accept. I talk about him in the present time. He is still with us, his spirit. The beauty of the music keeps him alive. Every night we perform, he is with us.”
In Robitaille’s initial vision of the project, the cycles of life related to the changing seasons. He added a fifth season — Indian Summer — as a time of surprisingly intense warmth before the harsh cold of winter. Robitaille says, “This is the most personal project of my career, and those seasons are there for me, even if it’s in an abstract way. Each song has its own persona, its own memories, its own souvenirs attached.”
Rather than limit the project to just one choreographer, Robitaille chose three to contribute to the work: Greek dance-maker Andonis Foniadakis, London-born Ihsan Rustem, and Colombian-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Robitaille explains, “We wanted to bring diversity into the evening in terms of movement, texture, color. Each has their own personality and brings a different energy and emotion to the evening, giving it more richness.”
Foniadakis, who grew up in Crete listening to Cohen’s songs, responded to the rich layers embedded in the music, focusing on the musical flow of feelings and sensations. “Foniadakis is really physical, and the most energy is in his part of the evening,” says Robitaille. The choreographer’s edgy, tempestuous tango was one of the excerpts from “Dance Me” that BJM presented during its last Boston engagement.
Rustem delved into Cohen’s lyrics and was inspired to create a physical poem to the songs. “Rustem is more lyrical, slower, with more body contact, more humor, more theatrical,” says Robitaille. “His choreography is the most poetic.”
Robitaille says the company chose Annabelle Lopez Ochoa as the third choreographer for her “more neoclassical discipline. Her choreography is the most lyrical, but at the same time a bit more jazzy and with a more feminine approach. She brings another energy.”
To pull it all together, he brought in dramaturge Eric Jean, who created an emotional rather than narrative or biographical arc. Jean aimed to create a picture of the whole man through the tone and subject matter of Cohen’s songs. And periodically in “Dance Me” there are evocations of Cohen himself, in silhouette or projection, wearing his trademark fedora and dress coat. “It’s a little flash to Mr. Cohen’s presence,” says Robitaille.
“Dance Me” marks the sixth time Global Arts Live (formerly World Music/CRASHarts) has brought BJM to Boston. “They are one of the finest contemporary dance companies in the world, technically and artistically superb,” says Maure Aronson, the organization’s founder and executive director. “Every work they create is an original. This is a fantastic opportunity to see an iconic dance company performing to the music of an iconic musician and composer.”
At 80 minutes without intermission, “Dance Me” is a physical and emotional challenge for the dancers, three of whom also sing during key moments. But Robitaille, himself a former dancer, says it is also immensely gratifying and transporting. “It allows the artist to get into a bubble, this dynamic that’s like a trance, which is fantastic when it happens onstage. You become somebody else. It’s a moment of grace. Something magic happens.”
BJM Presents “Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me”
Global Arts Live at Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, Oct. 25-26
Tickets $40-$79, 617-876-4275, www.globalartslive.org
An earlier version misstated the dates of this production.