Dance Me – Music by Leonard Cohen ★★★★

Ballets Jazz Montréal present the UK premiere of Dance Me, a respectful homage to the music and writings of Leonard Cohen, at Sadler’s Wells

Many musical greats are given an extended afterlife through the commercially-geared genre of jukebox musical. Thankfully the precious body of work of revered Montréal-based singer-songwriter and poet, Leonard Cohen, has been entrusted to an altogether more creative route. 

Ballets Jazz Montréal’s artistic director Louis Robitaille received permission from Cohen to use his poems and music to create a dance piece on the basis that it focused on his work and not his private life. True to his word, Dance Me is a beautiful and, at times, breathtaking homage to the towering artistic legacy of Cohen. 

All images ©RolandoPaoloGuerzoni

The considerable challenge for BJM is how to reflect the vast creativity of an eclectic artist as Cohen. Musically, his 14 studio albums stretched in his lifetime from his 1967 debut of  Songs of Leonard Cohen until 2016’s You Want It Darker. Stylistically his music varied from minimalist jazz / folk, a brief dalliance with wall of sound maximalism, through to synthesizer backings and even onto Euro-disco. Lyrically, in his songs and poetry, he would explore the personal, the spiritual and the political. His sly wit co-existed with his pessimism. The New York Times hailed him as “one of rock’s most profound aphorists”.

Considering Dance Me has three choreographers (Andonis Foniadakis, Ihsan Rustem and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa) presumably to place their own stamp on the twelve tracks to be performed, all impose such a similar dance aesthetic onto the heterogeneity of Cohen’s work, it feels like one work. 

There is no attempt to convey the narrative of the song lyrics. Given the pre-eminence of his writing, it would be folly to try. Instead for the most part the dance coexist with the original Cohen tracks. There is heavy emphasis on athleticism in the overall choreography. Breathless spinning, intricate and demanding lifts fluidly executed, lyricism and grace threaded through movement. Moods are created and dissolve only to be replaced by another transitory interaction. 

The highlights of Dance Me come when Cédric Delorme-Bouchard and Simon Beetschen’s evocative lighting designs fuse with the choreography and impose an emotional context to the dance. The opening track, the understated 2001 Here It Is with its almost-conspiratorial whispers, sees the dancers walking to and from the audience with amber side lighting smoothly flickering on and off. The image is immediately dynamic and cinematic. It’s an ever-changing tableau of glimpsed moments. Limbs then faces are spied briefly before returning to the darkness. Isolated illuminated hands pulse with the rhythm of the track, transforming themselves into heartbeats. As well as a visually impressive opening and marvelling at the precision of the dancers, it is something of a stylistic clue not to expect the full picture. 

The familiar Dance Me To The End of Love depicts Andrew Mikhaiel dance-waltzing with a seemingly unending succession of female dancers to the point of seeming exhaustion when Austin Lichty has to buoy him up. On the backdrop, the video projections shows the same woman falling in slow-motion, presumably disappearing as the man moves onto the next lover affair. Following perhaps his most intimate watlz, Mikhaiel is left alone on stage and it is he who is seen falling in the video projection, having reached his own end.

Suzanne from Cohen’s very first album and his first single is a gentle, poetic song about his platonic relationship with dancer Suzanne Verdal. As the lyrics detail, he would visit her Montréal flat by the harbour. It’s a song of mutual attraction that is never consummated. Yosmell Calderon Mejias and Tuti Cedeno perform a duet that reflects the sensitive intimacy of the song. The push and pull of their attraction sees the pair intertwine tenderly before Cedreno returns to the more chaste position of sitting on his knee. Rustem’s choreography here comes as close to interacting with the lyrics as Dance Me gets. Taking lyrical mentions of river, harbour and water, Cedeno’s weightlessness ably supported by Mejias gives the evocative image of her floating and swimming. 

Production values are deployed to maximum effect in a curiously left-field interpretation of Tower Of Song. Through small squares in the backdrop, disembodied pairs of legs appear with the dancers lying on their backs. A Busby Berkeley sequence of leg kicks and scissors punctuate the beat of one of Cohen’s quirkier songs. Following a video-projected typewriter being kicked back and forth by the aforementioned legs, a large red-lipped disembodied mouth lip-syncs the lyrics. It’s a fun playful break in the proceedings but it does give the impression of being a routine that’s escaped from a different show!

One of the strengths of Dance Me is that Leonard Cohen is never forgotten or set aside. Whether it’s Yosmell Calderon Mejias dressed in iconic Cohen coat and Fedora wandering through the entire production like a ghost, or his trademark ageing-Rottweiler vocal growl in voiceovers or indeed his words book-ending the show. Dance Me starts with the words of his Prayer for Messiah and ends with his spoken-word reprise of Treaty.

There is no doubting that Dance Me is a powerful, visually-imaginative production that packs a Wow Factor. Its bold staging can switch from wonderful intimacy to breathtaking spectacle. Cohen fans in the audience not only gave a warm ovation to the show, but were dancing in the aisles when the curtain came down. 

While the entire troupe of dancers are undoubtedly skilled and talented, bursting with energy and stamina, the lack of variety within the choreography is the one demerit of the production. A one-style-fits-all homogeny fails to convey fully the soaring highs but also the darker, sombre lows of Cohen’s work. 

A slick, impressive dance homage to Leonard Cohen’s music – Everybody Knows Dance Me deserves ★★★★ 4 stars

Dance Me Tickets

DANCE ME – MUSIC BY LEONARD COHEN plays at Sadler's Wells until 11 February 2023 

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