Sunday, February 17, 2013

BJM at 40

Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, now simply known as BJM, is celebrating its 40th anniversary as a company. Currently touring the country in celebration of that milestone, the troupe (which since 1998 has been under the artistic direction of Louis Robitaille) arrived in Vancouver this weekend as part of DanceHouse's current season, presenting a mixed program that roused last night's audience to an ecstatic standing ovation, but that frankly left me nonplussed.

Much has been made of BJM's evolution, over the course of its history, from a ballet to a contemporary dance company. And yet what the three pieces presented last night most demonstrated to me was a surprisingly tenacious adherence to some pretty basic classical conventions, especially with respect to the gendered dynamics of partnering. From what I could see, in BJM's world, female dancers mostly exist to be lifted and male dancers to do the lifting.

Indeed, in Cayetano Soto's Fuel, which opened the evening, when the women aren't being pushed and pulled by the men, they are reduced to animatronic dolls, spinning robotically in place. Things got mildly interesting for me when, near the end of the piece, the strict opposite sex partnering that had dominated to that point is interrupted by an intense and athletic male-male duet. But otherwise I kept finding myself staring into the bright lights directed at the audience from an industrial massing at the back of the stage.

Next up was Closer, a pas de deux choreographed by Benjamin Millepied (aka Mr. Natalie Portman) for BJM dancer Céline Cassone, here partnered by the sturdy Alexander Hille. Cassone, with her shock of reddish-pink hair, is certainly a captivatingly graceful dancer, but she is hardly ever out of Hille's arms. And while the steps are both pretty and technically accomplished (proving that Millepied might not actually be such a surprising choice to head an institution like the Paris Opéra Ballet), the lack of expressiveness and emotional connection between the dancers (I saw Hille more than once look away from Cassone and out over the audience, as if wondering, like me, when Philip Glass's piano score would ever end) left me cold.

The evening concluded with Barak Marshall's Harry, a 40-minute dance-theatre piece composed expressly for the BJM company. Ostensibly the story of the eponymous title character's complicated love life, it actually begins with his death. The leitmotif of returning to Harry's graveside to offer spoken word commentary, which under most other circumstances would get me tremendously excited (the combining of text and movement being a focus of mine), ended up reinforcing my overall frustrated response to Robitaille's programming. That's because these scenes always devolved into couples bickering, the piece's overwhelming heteronormativity being just one of the obstacles to my enjoyment of it. Another was the jarring clash of tones, with scenes abruptly careening from whimsical to sombre as a war theme is suddenly introduced (the piece is loosely framed as a postmodern take on Greek drama, complete with capricious Gods manipulating events, but as with the sudden and bizarre allusion to Les Misérables, these winking references didn't always work). Don't get me wrong: there was some stunning dancing on display here, particularly to the Israeli folk songs that formed part of the eclectic score.

I just wasn't as wild about Harry--and the program of which it was a part--as everyone else seemed to be.


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