Toronto's Sony Centre has billed Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, which will be performing at the venue on May 23, as "sexy" and "accessible." But I'm convinced that the mixed program being presented – one that BJM has spent the past four months touring in various renditions across Western Europe and North America – is much better than this promotion suggests.
The company hasn't performed in Toronto for a decade and the program they're returning with is impressive in its range and ambition. Not only does it give Toronto audiences a rare opportunity to see the work of three rising international choreographers – people other than stars Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, whose work we see regularly at The National Ballet – but it also showcases a group of classically trained dancers with a broad skill set and an almost anti-ballet charisma.
For a long time, certainly the better part of the seventies and eighties, Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal (BJM) was considered a lightweight in the dance world. Jazz was the operative word – the repertoire featured slinky choreography that leaned heavily on showy spectacle: off-centred kicks, thrusting hips and calypso leaps (think splits in the air with form-defying backbends). In the eighties, the company started to embrace a modern-dance aesthetic, but the underlying levity stayed intact. One of the company's touring pieces was Escargot by Louis Falco, the American also responsible for choreographing the movie Fame and Prince's music video Kiss. When New York Magazine reviewed Escargot in 1991 (performed then by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater), they claimed the "feelin'-good material" left you feeling mostly lobotomized.
The upshot of this very light mandate was that BJM didn't get much in the way of peer-juried arts funding, relying instead on box-office revenue. But the company started to redefine itself in the nineties, veering more towards a (subverted) ballet foundation. This shift was solidified in 1998 with ballet dancer Louis Robitaille's appointment as artistic director. BJM began to think about craft, theme, composition – they questioned the way that ballet technique could be deconstructed and reassembled. They commissioned work from new Canadian choreographers with distinctly classical backgrounds – people like Dominique Dumais, Aszure Barton and Shawn Hounsell. Crystal Pite, who's now an artistic associate at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London and one of the world's most notable female ballet choreographers, was a resident artist in 2001.
Their current program features three very different works, all extraordinarily engaging, and two of which are original BJM commissions. Closer, by the increasingly eminent Benjamin Millepied (now director of the Paris Opera Ballet) is the only non-commission. The piece is early Millepied – it was choreographed in 2006 when he was 29. In many ways, it feels that way.
That's not to say that Closer isn't good; it features beautiful partner-work and makes poignant use of stillness, while capturing the trembling simplicity of Philip Glass's piano solo Mad Rush. But you sense that Millepied hasn't yet worked out the tension between elegant body-sculpting and building a trajectory in the dancers' relationship. That doesn't make Closer unexciting; on the contrary, it's interesting to watch him rehearse some of the extraordinary backbends, quivering lifts and sensual floorwork that he connects with more emotional fluidity in his exceptional Daphnis et Chloé, which debuted at the Paris Opera last year.
The second piece is the athletically riveting Kosmos by Greek choreographer Andonis Foniadakis. Set to a pounding, percussive score by Julien Tarride, Kosmos erupts like an onstage storm, showcasing continuous, fast-paced movement that sees the dancers move from gymnastic floorwork to soaring leaps in seconds. The choreography features the kind of fearless, dissident aesthetic that many classically trained dancers can't pull off, but BJM's dancers throw themselves headlong into the challenge. It all makes for addictive entertainment.
But it's the final piece – Harry by Israeli-American choreographer Barak Marshall – that, in my mind, really distinguishes BJM from its lighter history. Marshall's innovative and theatrical choreography has won awards at dance festivals around the world; he was also house choreographer at Tel Aviv's renowned Batsheva Dance Company from 1999-2001 (Toronto audiences were treated to this gorgeous ensemble at Luminato in 2012).
Harry, a 40-minute piece about fate, death, war and gender, is a bit like watching a work by Marina Abramovic performed by classical ballet dancers. It's visually impressive, poetic and strange – exploding red balloons symbolize gunfire, people die and come back to life. The cast, dressed in forties-style dresses and slacks, shift seamlessly between Middle Eastern folk dancing and arresting bits of stylized swing. The roles demand that they sing, act and chant in Yiddish.
When I suggest to Robitaille, who speaks to me between rehearsals from Montreal, that BJM is doing something unique in Canada by finding fearless unorthodoxy within a classical form, he tells me that he disagrees, citing a host of Canadian ballet companies that are producing innovative contemporary work. I wonder if he's being too modest – the company's dauntless range feels rare and Toronto audiences are in for a gripping evening.