Storytelling in a silent art form like dance is always a challenge. For the evening-length work it brought to the Cutler Emerson Majestic Theatre this weekend, under the auspices of Global Arts Live, BJM — Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal turned to the great Montreal-born poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen. “Dance Me” has great dancing, but it doesn’t really tell any of Cohen’s stories.
The idea for “Dance Me” came from BJM’s artistic director, Louis Robitaille, as a way of contributing to Montreal’s 375th anniversary celebration. Cohen gave his approval for the project, and despite his untimely death in November 2016, “Dance Me” went forward. Robitaille and theater director Eric Jean selected 16 Cohen numbers and apportioned them among three choreographers, Andonis Foniadakis, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, and Ihsan Rustem. The result premiered in Montreal in December 2017.
At the Majestic, “Dance Me” — which takes its name from Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” — runs 80 minutes without intermission. The song choices range from “Suzanne” (1967) to “String Reprise/Treaty” (2016); it’s a fair selection, even if the likes of “Sisters of Mercy” and “Bird on the Wire” are absent. They’re not presented in chronological or any other apparent order, and there’s no narrative, though a figure in Cohen’s trademark greatcoat and fedora does stalk the proceedings.
What makes choreographing Cohen easy is that his music usually has a strong dance pulse. What makes it hard is that his lyrics often go where bodies can scarcely follow, especially when the subject matter is religion or politics rather than sex and love. What do you do with the “Jesus was a sailor” middle verse of “Suzanne”? How do you dance the biblical references to Bathsheba and Delilah in “Hallelujah”? How do you address the Arab-Israeli context of “Nevermind,” or the music-industry needling in “Tower of Song,” or the outright revolution of “First We Take Manhattan”?
BJM doesn’t seem to try — even the wedding vibe of “Dance Me to the End of Love” goes for naught. The slick, frenetic movement of “Dance Me” is standard issue for this company: jittery acrobatics and gymnastics with lots of whirling, flailing, rolling, wrestling, gesticulating, gyrating, frugging, and high-kicking. It all looks the same from one song to another and from one choreographer to another. “So Long, Marianne” and “Hallelujah” aren’t even danced but merely sung by the performers, and though they do a decent job, it’s Cohen who, as he reminds us in “Tower of Song,” has the “golden voice.”
“Boogie Street,” with its bare-chested men and bare-legged women, turns into an orgy. The Cohen poem “A Thousand Kisses Deep” has the silhouetted dancers walking and then running past a fedora’d figure at a typewriter. Typewriters are a regular motif: One spells out the initial lines of “I’m Your Man,” and a whole bunch turn up in “Tower of Song,” where, mystifyingly, supine women whip their legs about like the June Taylor Dancers and huge red video lips mouth the final stanza. From time to time long metal poles appear, and the dancers spar with them when they don’t look as if they are doing rhythmic gymnastics.
Rustem’s “Suzanne” is a duet for company principals Céline Cassone and Yosmell Calderon in which Cassone’s feet never touch the ground. It’s a rare distinctive moment in “Dance Me,” even if the concept doesn’t have anything to do with the song. The same couple perform “It Seemed the Better Way,” and here Lopez Ochoa manages to suggest the songwriter in a wrestling match with the “better way” of Jesus. It’s the one piece in “Dance Me” that dances Cohen.
Dance Me — Music of Leonard Cohen
Conceived by Louis Robitaille. Stage direction by Eric Jean. Choreography by Andonis Foniadakis, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, and Ihsan Rustem. Performed by BJM — Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal. Presented by Global Arts Live. At Cutler Emerson Majestic Theatre, Oct. 25.