Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal
The night before I was supposed to see "Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal" at the Joyce, an unwelcome visitor got there before me. After Sandy, the Joyce, like the rest of Chelsea was left literally powerless, and the company’s season was cancelled.
I’m not sure how the Joyce found a hole in its holiday schedule, but this is the season of miracles. What I saw on Thursday night was well worth waiting for. Like the city it so well represents, this absolutely terrific company combines the very best of the Old World and the New; in this case, Gallic sophistication with North American athleticism.
The "jazz" in the name refers more to jazzing up classical ballet (which after all originated in the French court) than to a musical style. The choreographers and dancers give us the best of both worlds. As displayed in the three pieces at this all-too-brief New York showcase, this seems to be a troupe who can do anything.
"Zero In On" is a kinetic pas de deux that reflects natural-movement advocates like Pilobolus and Momix. To a (surprisingly, to me at least) engaging score by proto-Minimalist Philip Glass, Céline Cassone and Kevin Delaney whirl, twirl, swirl, cartwheel and flip around the stage like hummingbirds. There isn’t a moment’s rest, but the end result is one of peace and quiet contentment.
"Harry" was a good-humored mock-narrative about the title character’s repeated "Groundhog Day" deaths and funerals. The piece was too long and rambling for my taste, a hodgepodge of slapstick humor (when Harry is lined up against a firing squad, the "guns" are red balloons, a recurring motif); soap opera (a wild Italian-accented woman straight out of Fellini film keeps popping up); and political agitprop (a revolutionary pyramid topped by a flag-waving man that’s straight out of "Les Mis").
The music, too, runs through too many genres, from ’40s big band to Puccini. Although the whole may be less than the sum of its parts, "Harry" at least shows the dancers’ ability to channel humor.
The highlight of the evening by far is the middle piece, "Night Box." Channeling a hyper-active nightclub scene that has made Montreal the club capital of North America, "Night Box" is the best evocation of a big-room dance floor I’ve ever seen from a "serious" dance company.
In the first part, set to a throbbing House sample, the movement, lights and music convey a sense of grooving to the groove, a K-hole sway. Two pas de deux, one woman-man, the other man-man, give beautiful depictions of the way, after several hours in a club, the dancers stop thinking and let their bodies’ response to the beat take over.
The two men have a call-and-response that abstracts from a dance-floor flirtation to coupling. At the end, one of the men appears to be passing out while the other tries to prop him out. You can draw your own conclusions, but I found it an eery representation of what I’ve witnessed all-too many times.
My favorite part of the piece was a series of couples locked in each other’s arms, each one in their own little world. They sway dreamily to the music and move each others’ hands around their bodies in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has been at an Alegria or Black Party will understand.
Chinese-born choreographer Wen Wei Wang has long lived and worked in Canada, where he has his own company. I wasn’t familiar with his works until now and I’m not sure how representative this is of his style.
According to the program notes, "the choreographer worked with Montreal design duo UNTTLD to create a new and refreshing style inspired by urban street life." I’m assuming that these guys contributed more than the costumes, which were lovely but hardly broke new ground. An article in metro describes the work as the result of a weeklong workshop.
However he got there, Wang has provided us with a thrilling work that allows Ballets Jazz not only to bridge the gap between classical and contemporary dance, but between contemporary dance and the kind of dancing that defines the Montreal scene.