Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal and Israel's Yossi & Oded flaunt "physicality"

"Static balance" vs. off-kilter dynamism; concert dance at the tipping-point

Frenetic bursts and heavy-breathing lulls. Photos: BJM, YossiOded.

Reading the flashing electric marquee for the Dance House presentation of Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal (BJM), one might have expected some ballet and some jazz on the Vancouver Playhouse stage.

Wrong, on both counts.

All three pieces on the bill were danced to scores that were “jazzy,” according to BJM artistic director Louis Robitaille – meaning edgy, fresh and innovative. But none of them were exactly jazz, he admits, in the sonorous, swing-imbued, improvisatory canonical sense.

A kind of techno-throb by the Dusseldorf duo Grandbrothers undergirded Brazilian choreographer Rodrigo Pedermeiras’ First Nations-themed Rouge.  Israeli choreographer Itzik Galili co-authored (with Thomas Höfs) his own metronomic percussion score for his bravura dance duet Mono Lisa. And composer Julien Tarride offered an atonal “contemporary electro-acoustic” soundtrack for choreographer Adonis Feniadakis’ frenetic Kosmos.

And as for ballet, nothing on the evening’s programme even attempted the fluid progression from tableau to tableau that marks the seemingly effortless “static balance” of classical dance.

Rather, all three pieces were visibly strenuous off-kilter kaleidoscopes of patterns; frenzied bodies ceaselessly tumbling into one fleeting conjunction after another until they all collapse, sweating and gasping, onto the dance floor.

It’s an aesthetic that Robitaille, in his pre-show talk, sums up as “physicality.”

No coincidence, perhaps, that the Israeli Company Yossi Berg & Oded Graf Dance Theatre uses the same buzzword to describe its signature offering at this year’s Chutzpah Festival. There’s a distinct family resemblance between the two companies: frenetic bursts of acrobatic energy, punctuated by panting, gasping lulls.

Except at least the Israelis tip us off, right in the title of their work, as to what’s in store: 4Men, Alice, Bach and the Deer.

First onstage is the deer, a plaster specimen with a magnificent metre-wide span of antlers, primly kneeling under a spotlight to the tune of a gratingly vapid Latino soundtrack.On the wings of this score, the 4Men – eponymous choreographers Yossi & Oded, plus Toby Fitzgibbons and Ofir Yudilevitch – cha-cha their entry, stage right, in lockstep single-file.

They’re hooded in metallized helmets, the affectless eye- and mouth-slits highlighted with Nascar-style rally stripes. One by one they break ranks to strut and flex about the stage as the music, mercifully, morphs into a Bach partita for solo violin.

The sinuous lines of melody match the capoeira-style moves as the dancers intertwine in a Laocoön welter of limbs and grimaces. Their encounters grow increasingly concussive, interspersed with grunts and cackles and – incongruously – homoerotic caresses.

The 4Men snatch at each other’s masks, jealously re-hooding themselves whenever they can. One of the dancers, Fitzgibbons, recites a fable (text by Sergiu Matis) about a quartet of forest-dwelling bro’s who live contentedly in a kind of hermetic frat house until a pert ingénue – Alice (played by Berg) – cycles up the trail to puncture their brainless bonhomie.

Hard to gauge how consensual is the ensuing collision – “yes means no” or “no means yes?” But it leaves the 4Men so shaken that they can never quite regain their masks or their Latino lockstep. They wind up closing in on the deer in crouching circles, grunting chants until Yudilevitch shockingly plucks the antlered head right off its plaster neck and hoists it skyward for shamanistic veneration.

Altogether a funny, creepy and unnervingly tender take on the dilemmas of guyhood, performed with expressive virtuosity.

A like virtuosity marked all three BJM performances, which more than compensated for their lack of thematic coherence. The sheer concentration of hyperkinetic talent – 10+ dancers each in both Kosmos and Rouge – made these showpieces all the more riveting (even a little enervating) to watch.

Masterful lighting (by James Proudfoot and choreographer Paderneiras’ brother Gabriel, repectively) enhanced the spectacles – stark sidelights and overhead spots, coloured gels and strobes.

Kosmos even concluded with a cutting-edge moiré technique. Proudfoot blacked out the stage to projected a rising fountain of bubbles onto the foreground bodies, offset by a falling cascade of fine-grained snow on a background scrim. The net effect was to dissolve the BJM ensemble into a Ghost Dance of pure energy – swirling constellations of mere evanescent monads.

All of which left me a tad bewildered, as I sometimes feel after a stellar circus performance, say, or a Chinese acrobatic show: vastly impressive, prodigiously difficult – but, after all, what for?

No such quandaries, though, about the third item on the BJM programme, Galili’s Mono Lisa. Clocking in at just nine minutes, it featured only two dancers, Alexander Hille and Céline Cassone, in a witty battle of the sexes.

They first dance out from under an array of overhead spotlights, faintly suggestive of a QWERTY keyboard – an impression enhanced by the clackety-clack of the percussive score.

Hille frisks and vaults in a series of opening gambits, which leave Cassone signally unimpressed. At each “ding” of the carriage return, she just yawns a little and fluffs her russet mane of hair.

But when she finally decides to get in the swing of things, she’s all over him in a paroxysm of impossibly sexy athleticism. Whatever they’re telegraphing to each other, the percussive keystrokes quicken until, at last, The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog. And then she just saunters off on her own, leaving him as baffled as he was at the outset.

An ageless and universal dilemma, isn’t it? I query my concert-going seatmate and bride of 40 years. “In your dreams,” she murmurs, never turning from prodigious pas de deux onstage.





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