Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal – BJM Danse
Les Chambres des Jacques, Night Box
Erie, Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center
17 April 2012
It is rare when a highly-regarded dance company like Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal (a.k.a. BJM Danse ) chooses to premiere a work someplace other than on its home turf or at another big city venue. So it was uniquely special for the audience at Mercyhurst University’s Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center in Erie, Pennsylvania, when the Canadian contemporary dance company, now in its 40th season, chose to unveil the world premiere of choreographer Wen Wei Wang’s Night Box in their small market city.
BJM didn’t disappoint, delivering a solidly entertaining and impeccably-danced program packed with both the bizarre and the familiar.
The bizarre came first in the form of choreographer Aszure Barton’s 36-minute Les Chambres des Jacques (2006).
Set to an eclectic collection of music from singer-songwriter Gilles Vigneault, composer Antonio Vivaldi, Polish quartet, the Cracow Klezmer Band, and others, the work was a fascinating feat of choreographic brilliance from the seemingly unfiltered mind of Barton.
It opened with dancer Brett Taylor performing a quirky solo that would set the tone for the rest of the work. Taylor moved through elegantly-stylized contemporary dance movement interjected with grotesque facial contortions, Cirque du Soleil-style clowning and guttural screams creating an intriguing mix of beauty and ugliness. The rest of the work’s ten dancers then followed suit in several duets, trios and group dances.
Like a modern-day Professor Henry Higgins from Pygmalion only in reverse, Barton’s choreography turned the refined beauty and athleticism of these dancers on its head and transformed them into, among other things, crotch-sniffing leg-lickers.
Perhaps a statement on what it would look like if the strain and emotion of what was going on behind the dancers’ veneer of calm and control when they performed unexpectedly evaporated, or just an attempt by Barton to be shocking, the results were oddly compelling.
Taken just for its sleek off-kilter and elongated contemporary movement language sprinkled with powerful lifts, turns and partnering, Les Chambres des Jacques would have been a success.
Add to it the barrage of butt slaps, finger snaps and nose-grabbing, not to mention a healthy dose of sexual innuendo, and the work rose to another level of artistic genius.
While Les Chambres des Jacques celebrated the peculiar, the world premiere of Chinese choreographer Wang’s Night Box gave new life to the familiar. The 40-minute dance work with an urban nightlife theme melded club-dance moves, new contemporary choreography and several often-used jazz and contemporary movement phrases to create a slick, well-constructed dance work.
On a darkened stage a group of BJM’s dancers stood tightly clustered with their backs to the audience as pulsating dance-club music filled the air and floor-level flashes of light illuminated their bodies.
The dancers broke into a movement phrase danced in unison à la music video as a video projection of a metropolitan nightscape appeared behind them. The unison dancing then morphed into freeform social dancing as if on a club dance floor.
Set to a wide-ranging soundscape from German audio artist Olaf Bender, composers Max Richter, Giorgio Magnanensi and others, Night Box created an air of chicness. Within a black-and-white landscape of nearly-perpetually-moving bodies, BJM’s “twenty-something” dancers appeared typecast in their roles as trendy, attractive night-on-the-towners. Through a series of solos, duos, trios and group dances, brief stories of these characters emerged; some sensual, others melancholy or troubled.
Wang’s underlying movement language for the work favored that of Barton’s and other contemporary choreographers with the dancers ripping through off-center bends and arches of their backs and torsos, outstretched arabesques and sweeping high-legged martial-arts-style sidekicks. Also like Barton (but nowhere near the same degree) Wang spiced up his choreography with more unusual elements that added texture and visual impact.
In one section a male-female couple twirled and intertwined limbs in a close-quarters pas de deux while five other couples slow-danced around them. With backs facing the audience, one member of each couple slid the other’s hands up and off their derrieres in an attempt at decorum only to have their partner’s hands creep back to the positions they started at.
In another section, BJM’s dancers formed a conga line but instead of grasping the person in front of them by the waist, the dancers used their hands to sandwich the head of the person in ahead of them.
The work’s climactic moment came in a transfixing duet set to piercing violin music and performed exquisitely by dancers Céline Cassone and James Gregg.
The pair delicately collapsed into each other as Gregg began lightly tugging at Cassone who at times pulled away as if unsure of her feelings for him or if she wanted him to be the one she ended her night out with. With feather-like ease Gregg lifted the supple Cassone into several graceful and balletic body positions including one where he effortlessly carried her across the stage, her feet soundlessly skimming the floor as if she were a ghostly wisp of vapor.
Appreciative of the program’s two outstanding works and BJM’s dancers performances in them, the Erie audience gave the company a well-deserved standing ovation.