Penn Live Arts Blog

The high-spirited and charismatic Ballets Jazz Montréal returns Feb 9-10 with two premieres

Posted January 31, 2024

Expect to fall in love when Quebec’s ambassador of contemporary dance, Ballets Jazz Montréal (BJM), one of the world’s most loved touring companies, returns to our stage with two premieres and a reimagined work on Feb 9-10. The company’s explosive, powerful, hauntingly beautiful and, at times, strange dances created by international choreographers have dazzled and excited audiences in 3,250 performances in 60 countries for half a century. However, its greatest asset is the dancers’ effervescent, joyful and feel-good style as they effortlessly display their virtuosity and versatility. Le Soleil Quebec City shared that "the dancers are the real strength of this company. Each of them stands out for his or her strength, flexibility, and charisma. What we were shown put the human at the center of the work ... which sets BJM apart from other companies."

In all began with dancers from Eva von Genscy’s school who performed works mixing ballet technique with jazz music. Von Genscy, Eva Salbaing and Eddy Toussaint formed Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal in 1972. The early days featured hip, hot and unabashedly sexy works by prominent Canadian choreographers Brian MacDonald and James Kudelka. As BJM became a major force on the world stage, it commissioned works by choreographers including Mauricio Wainrot, Vincente Nebrada, Lynne Taylor-Corbett, Ulysses Dove, Louis Falco, David Parsons and Buzz Miller.

BJM’s glorious history evolved with Louis Robitaille who took the realms from 1998-2020. A BJM youth scholarship student, Robitaille was a Les Grands Ballets Canadiens principal dancer and gold medal winner with partner Anik Bissonnette in Eddy Toussaint’s Un Simple Movement at the Helsinski International Festival. Robitaille re-envisioned BJM as a contemporary company that fused jazz with theatre, circus, visual arts and new music. He commissioned works by sought-after choreographers and repositioned the troupe to be artistically creative yet audience friendly. “We are committed to commissioning new work,” said Robitaille. “We like our repertoire to be exclusive to us.” One such work was Dance Me performed in our 19/20 season reflects this vision.

BJM has been a Philly favorite since its first appearance on Dance Celebration’s Monday Night Series in 2001, which featured works by Crystal Pite, Gioconda Barbuto and Rodrigo Pederneiras. The company returned in 2004 as part of its first U.S. tour, and then for many subsequent appearances in 2008, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019. You may recall memorable works such as Dance Me, set to Leonard Cohen’s music, Mauro Bigonzetti’s delicious Rossini Cards, Barak Marshall’s hilarious Harry or Itzik Galili’s unforgettable duet Mono Lisa, featuring the exquisite and unbelievably flexible principal dancer Céline Cassone (Robitaille’s wife) and Mark Francis Caserta.

In the spring of 2021, BJM appointed Alexandra Damiani as artistic director, recognized for her vast international connections and expertise in cinema, commercials, festivals and international dance venues. Damiani danced with BJM from 2002-2005 under Robitaille’s direction, performed as a soloist for Donald Byrd/The Group and Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and served as Ballet Mistress and then Artistic Director for Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet for 10 years. You may recall seeing her portray the wildly cruel ballet mistress in Darren Aronofsky’s sensational film, Black Swan, or working with Tanisha Scott on Cardi B’s performance for the 2019 BET Awards.

Damiani forged a path into a time of celebration, marking the company’s 50th anniversary with a tribute program, ESSENCE, featuring works by three female choreographers, Crystal Pite, Aszure Barton and Ausia Jones, all with deep connections to BJM.

BJM’s first choreographer in residence in 2002, Crystal Pite brings a background of 30 years of relentless artistry to her highly emotional Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue, a Philadelphia premiere set to the sounds from Solaris by Cliff Martinez. This work explores the role of the rescuer and the rescued. The movement vocabulary mixes urban styles with ballet technique and features five dancers performing multiple roles. Ten Duets challenges both the viewer and performers to create their own interpretation. Pite notes, “I love the word ‘rescue.’ It captures a whole story in a single word.” Local audiences may recall previous Pite repertoire that graced our stage such as the edgy Pendulum (1995) or the humorous and quirky Short Works 24 (2004).

Aszure Barton is no stranger to Penn Live Arts audiences who may have seen her amazing Indominable Waltz performed by Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company back in October. For this program, Barton’s Les Chambres des Jacques (2006) has been reinvented, taking inspiration from BJM’s newest cast of dancers and their unique personalities. Les Chambres “is a rare instance of a dance that feels as if it were plucked straight from the choreographer’s extremely specific imagination and set, full-grown, onstage...full of surprise and humor, emotion and pain, expressed through a dance vocabulary that takes ballet technique and dismantles it to near-invisibility.” (The New York Times)

The program is completed by the Philadelphia premiere of We Can’t Forget About What’s His Name by rising choreographer and company member since 2020, Ausia Jones. Set to an original score by Earth Boring, this full-company, musically driven work explores concepts of time, community, togetherness and uncertainty. Damiani observes “It’s a window into the new generation. It is evolving with us because she is here and misses nothing.”

Come and celebrate Valentine’s Day with Canada’s most loved company! In addition to the three public performances Feb 9-10, there is a Student Discovery matinee for school groups on Fri, Feb 9 at 10:30 AM and a masterclass for high school and college students on Feb 10. Hope to see you there.

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