Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal brings the love songs of Leonard Cohen to life at The Broad Stage

By Christina Campodonico

Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal’s “Dance Me” expresses the rapturous emotions of some of Leonard Cohen’s most powerful songs

It could be said that poetry and song lyrics are like siblings from another mother. Just as songs can animate poetry, so too can dance bring music to life. So when Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal (BJM) artistic director Louis Robitaille was approached about creating a program for the 375th anniversary of Montreal, his mind immediately turned to another famed cultural icon of Canada — the late Canadian troubadour and “master of erotic despair” Leonard Cohen.

“Before being a director, I was also a dancer,” says Robitaille, who met Cohen once on a film set back in the ’80s and recalls becoming an even “bigger fan” after the experience. “One of his great albums, called ‘I’m Your Man’ — that was playing all the time in my car and at home. …

“There’s some people who have a charisma and aura … bigger than life. [It was] a beautiful experience just to shake his hand. … He was so gentle. So warm.

“So I thought, when I was dancing, to do something on his music one day — as a dancer — but it never happened.”

That is until the opportunity to celebrate Montreal’s anniversary came up. Cohen and BJM’s shared connection to Montreal was a no-brainer, and the company quickly set to work on acquiring permission to use ballads from Cohen’s legendary songbook in an evening-length show — among them “Suzanne,” “Hallelujah,” “Lover, Lover, Lover” and “Dance Me to the End of Love” — from the master songwriter himself. That show titled “Dance Me” comes to The Broad Stage in Santa Monica this Friday and Saturday.

Cohen was enthusiastic about the idea, recalls Robitaille, but wanted to make sure the full arc of his musical career was represented — not just his
most well-known songs.

“His main concern was not to pay only attention to his classic, big successes, but also to his last album [You Want It Darker],” says Robitaille. “We wanted to cover his whole life’s work.”

So BJM curated a list of songs from throughout Cohen’s career.

“We had so many songs at the beginning. I think we had a six-hour show,” says Robitaille.

“It was a bit heartbreaking at times,” “Dance Me” dramaturg Eric Jean confesses in a video by BJM promoting the show. “There were the must-haves that absolutely had to find a place in the show, but I can’t deny that we mourned quite a few losses.”

In addition to hiring Jean as theatrical director to give a “dramatic line” to the show, says Robitaille, the company also commissioned internationally renowned choreographers Andonis Foniadakis, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Ihsan Rustem to set movement to Cohen’s songs.

What emerged is a program that takes audiences not only through the seasons of the calendar year, but also through the seasons of Cohen’s life.

“We worked with four seasons because here in Canada the seasons are very different. There’s a color to it, there’s a feeling to it, and also we brought another element, which is a period of time here in Canada we call the ‘Indian summer’… a period of time where it becomes quite warm for a couple of days, a week, 10 days,” says Robitaille. “We use that period of time as the fifth season to express the end of life, which is the passage to something unknown.”

Given Cohen’s seal of approval before his death, the show premiered a little over a year after the songwriter passed away at the age of 82. But Robitaille does not see the show as eulogy or requiem for Cohen, but a “tribute” and ode to the special chemistry between Cohen’s music, dance and the fans who come to pay homage at BJM’s performances of “Dance Me.”

“As a dance company you want to bring joy, inspiration, beauty to the audience. … Sometimes the audience brings you into something special. Sometimes there’s a connection with a moment in the evening that just gives you … goosebumps,” says Robitaille. “It’s a perfect marriage.”.

As of press time, tickets ($69 to $99) for Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal’s Feb. 14 & 15 performances of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me” at The Broad Stage are nearly sold out. Visit thebroadstage.org to get on the waitlist.