Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal
Saturday, May 7, 2016
Miller Symphony Hall
By Alexandra Pobiedzinski
Canadian-based contemporary company, Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal (BJM), is renowned for the energy and spirit of its repertoire. With an eclectic group of dancers who bring their individual personas to the choreography, the company maintains a strict adherence to classical technique that is nothing short of breathtaking. Its performances explode off the stage with a fervor that engages all audiences, creating a kinesthetic allure through driving music, effortful bodies and satisfying manipulations of time, space and energy. BJM brought three of its current works to the Symphony Hall Stage, filling the historical landmark theatre of downtown Allentown with a combination of classical dance mixed with a contemporary vision that felt at once time-honored and yet refreshingly relevant.
The first piece, entitled Rouge, immediately transports the audience into a tribal world with earthy, Native-inspired costumes and a musical score that utilizes heavy rhythmic drumming mixed with throat singing and sounds of nature. Beginning with the entire ensemble onstage driving forward in unison, we are drawn into the overwhelming sense of impenetrable community that is unveiled to us. The underlying, continuous beat gives a pulsating sense of a single heartbeat, the universal driving rhythm of life. The dancers move with an athletic and at times almost violent quality, maintaining strong, erect torsos while moving their legs powerfully and seamlessly. Even in sporadic moments of undulation where the bodies soften, we never lose the sense of power, confidence and aggression inherent in the group. “Strength in numbers” is the phrase that comes to mind. Couples lit in silhouette against a red scrim mark a shift in the piece where we start to see the unrest that may actually lie beneath the surface upon closer look into this community. The dancers are eventually left scattered throughout the stage, and we see them rise and continuously fall, as if a weight keeps pushing them down once they get halfway up.
Eventually, one female remains onstage who dances against the aggression of four males, until another female enters and overpowers them. We are reminded of the stereotypical differences between the sexes often evident in Native tradition. The piece is brought to a strong, confrontational conclusion as the ensemble takes the stage, moving directly forward with chests out and chins up, leaving the final image of this community one where power struggles and tension beneath the surface are ultimately overwhelmed by the supremacy and force of the group as a whole.
A shift to cool tones and a more balletic feel brings us to Closer, a duet set to the familiar piano composition of “Mad Rush” by Philip Glass. Danced by a male and female, the partnering in the piece obeys traditional rules of ballet partnering, with the male always being the one to lift the female. The closeness of the couple created by their physical proximity and intimate movement vocabulary create the cocoon of a very personal relationship. Her reliance on him to catch, lift and support her reveal both a confidence and comfort in her dependency, and perhaps their mutual dependency, as they remain in unison even when separated. The monotonous repetition of the score lends a sense of urgency and desperation, which contrasts the controlled movement of the dancers. At the same time, repetition drives the composition of the piece, giving us a sense that this is their routine, as they experience the everyday push-pull of a passionate relationship. In the final phrase, the couple at last moves into the floor. Their bodies entwine and disengage climaxing in this satisfying glimpse into the couple’s most private moments of the piece.
The final piece of the evening, Kosmos, begins in silence, with a single dancer onstage moving as if she is fighting something, with rhythmic, linear motions that seem inspired by martial arts. As other dancers add into the space, their black costumes against an austere black curtain and stark side lighting set up an industrial feel that reflects an urban environment where steel and business rule and only the tough survive. The chaos of the piece builds until the group comes together and begins to melt, which transforms into more desperate thrashing. The piece divides into a series of duets, trios and solos that explore human connection in an often emotionless urban community. The dancers strip down as the piece progresses, removing their black uniforms to reveal flesh-colored clothing indicative of humanity’s Native roots, augmented by African drumming in the music. Finally the dancers are lit in silhouette, with only the human form visible beneath a black and white projection that is something between television static and water-like waves. Focusing on the shapes created by the bodies onstage, we see the architecture of the human form and finally two bodies hugging which eventually separate, emphasizing the importance of human connection and ultimately celebrating relationships.
BJM’s program leaves the audience feeling invigorated. The energy and technical prowess that exude from the dancers is infectious and the choreography celebrates humanity on its many levels. The works can be appreciated by the trained dancer and critic and yet are also accessible to everyone via universal themes and the basic enjoyment that comes with witnessing strong, athletic movement.