‘Dance Me’ with Leonard Cohen | review

Words by Bengi-Sue Sirin. Performed at Sadler’s Wells on 7 Feb.

We are so lucky to have had Leonard Cohen. As human beings, creatures who experience emotions and passions, few artists evoke more of our multitudes of feelings.

If you choose one emotion, there is a Cohen song to match it. Anxiety, pain, love, grief… like a true poet, he bared it all. His music, often thematically dark, contains multiplicities, dancing the line between simple and slow melodies and intensely meaningful lyrics.

Cohen sort of sounds like gravel, yet somehow also born with the gift of a golden voice; he is the intensity of a burning violin, a dog in heat, but at the same time he is tea and oranges that come all the way from China; his faith was strong but he needed proof, and he tried, in his way, to be free; he has his very own breath of brandy and death; he is what happens to the heart, to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again; sincerely L. Cohen.

Canada – specifically his birthplace of Montreal – is rightfully very proud, hence the nation’s latest homage from Montreal’s leading company, Ballets Jazz Montreal. Ballets Jazz Montreal has just celebrated its 50 year company anniversary, having been founded in 1972 by Genevieve Salbaing (just after Cohen released the excellent, Famous Blue Raincoat-wielding album Songs of Love and Hate). Ballets Jazz Montreal began preparing Dance Me with Cohen’s approval before his death in 2016, under the artistic direction of Louis Robitaille. The premise is very much tribute to Cohen, through the lens of three choreographers: Adonis Foniadakis, Ihsan Rustem and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. It premiered in 2017 and has shown at various international venues, but this is its first visit to London.

Arriving at Sadler’s Wells on opening night, I sense that this audience has long been anticipating Dance Me. I include myself in this – I have been a Leonard Cohen fan since I first ever ‘Felt Things’ as a teenager… You may spot some lyrical references sprinkled throughout this piece, and I make no apologies for it. There is a buzz in the air, a mix of fans old and young, of first-time dance-goers and seasoned attendees. It is a testament – Cohen speaks to so many people, brings them all together. As I take my seat, I feel in safe hands, for what better artistic medium than dance to draw feeling from music, especially when that music’s soil is so fertile, a thousand kisses deep?

And so we begin. Homage is immediately evident, for the dancer walking onstage is Leonard-esque in silhouette, black fedora and turtleneck to boot. Early in the show is one of my favourite Cohen songs, Lover Lover Lover, choreographed by Ihsan Rustem. It opens with a male dancer embodying the myriad tones within Cohen’s voice: urgent, yearning, in swirls. Five more similarly outfitted and impassioned men join him. I feel that I am seeing what I imagine of this passionate Leonard in technicolour, a sextet of passionate, romantic men, all embodying the need of the song, ribs bare, heart thumping beneath. The piece makes almost sole use of unison, a solid choice for such a statement of a song. Lover Lover Lover showed Cohen’s passionate side literally.

The next piece, again by Rustem, takes a similarly literal angle. Dance Me to the End of Love, the show’s eponymous startpoint, opens with its crooningly familiar “Laaaaa-la’s”, and another Leonard-like man (Andrew Mikhaiel) takes centre stage, in black of course. A woman joins him, to be lifted like an olive branch, with soft light bounce and lots of wide-legged kicks. As the first verse slides into the second, she leaves, replaced by a new woman. They duet in much the same style, with lifts that portray Mikhaiel/Cohen as having all the power, yet being gently charming. This pattern continues; a new woman for a new verse, until a man comes instead. The male-male duet is my favourite; more unctuous and melted, hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Dance Me to the End of Love is on Cohen’s album Various Positions, something I feel Rustem’s choreography takes rather literally. I like it, but find it slightly obvious. It could have been interesting to portray the well-known source of inspiration for the song and its ‘burning violins,’ the horrifying juxtaposition of the Nazi’s forcing string quartets to play besides the death chambers of their fellow prisoners. That dark point of history finding its way into a song shows us, Cohen is much more than a womaniser.

In a later piece, Rustam better demonstrates the full and highly enjoyable extent of his choreographic range. It is to another of my favourite Cohen tunes, the cheeky and charming Tower of Song. Written from a vantage point of age-acquired wit (as shown in its brilliantly acerbic opening lines: “Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey/ And I ache in the places where I used to play”), Tower begs to be interpreted with tongue in cheek.

It starts with a woman walking across a line of what looks like white chair boxes in time with the beat. They light up at each step, revealing themselves as televisions on seats. Two heads poke down underneath, cheekily coming from nowhere. Then a canon display of legs. At this point, we are at Tower’s post-verse piano tinkle, and imagine if you can a unison leg sequence of pointed limbs in direct sync with the keys, in ironic sync with Cohen’s serious tone. It is fabulous – we all chuckle, delighted that this side of Cohen is paid its due. More comic highlights include a Rocky Horror Picture Show cum Rolling Stones tongue and lips logo backdrop mouthing the ‘Doo-dum-dum-dum’ of the backing singers. Other reviewers have rightly compared Rustem’s piece to Busby Berkeley. This is just the sort of choreography I like, a tinge of humour to draw the best out of the dancers.

Image by Paolo Guerzoni.

I must mention another of Rustem’s choreographies, to Cohen’s beautiful Suzanne. In contrast with the other pieces of his I’ve mentioned, he uses only two dancers for the whole song. They are BJM Principal Yosmell Calderon Mejias and Tuti Cedeno, and they have the best dancer chemistry I’ve seen in a long time. Suzanne starts with Mejias holding Cedeno secure while she ronde jambes her pointed leg in slow, measured winds. Every now and then he transfers her to another part of his body, and never once does she touch the floor. It is mesmerising; liquid molten smooth, oozing maple syrup… There is no strain in Mejias’ body, and no mistrust from Cedeno’s, only a river-like duet of platonic love, support and solicitude.

For me, Rustem’s choreography stands out as the strongest amongst the pieces of Dance Me. It is a challenge to choreograph to the comparatively shorter music lengths of popular songs, for six minutes is not a lot of time to establish an idea of sorts, and to enrich it beyond merely ‘dance routine’ level. I found a proportion of the show to not quite accomplish what Tower of Song and Suzanne managed, perhaps leaning too heavily into just representing the sound of the music. The dances that transcended this had extra depth and their own distinct flavour.

I must mention a piece by Andonis Foniadakis that also had this outstanding edge, his interpretation of the dramatic and very 80s First We Take Manhattan. Its Pet Shop Boys-esque synth sound demands aggressive, space-consuming choreography to match, and Foniadakis ensures that with this ensemble piece. It is comprised of marvellous travelling sequences with leaps that could bound one first from Manhattan, then to Berlin. The dancers run across the stage in what resembles the lines of streets, and thrust forward in a manner evocative of the iconic stances in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Manhattan as a song provides plenty of extremity, and I am glad that this upbeat, striking side of Cohen has had its moment.

And so it goes! Dance Me came to an end, 80 minutes of homage to Leonard Cohen, the many sides of the man rotated and shown by the highly skilled Ballets Jazz Montreal. Not every piece was a hit, but those that were have embedded themselves onto my consciousness, forever to be associated with said song. There was definitely something for everyone. I can think of no better way to draw this review to a close than to return to his lyrics; the motive for the piece; the ambition of Louis Robitaille’s initial artistic vision back in 2016; and what I think, ultimately, BJM achieved: ‘Show me slowly what I only know the limits of/ Dance me to the end of love.’

Leonard Cohen Playlist – running order of the show & for your personal enjoyment!

  1. Here It Is
  2. Lover Lover Lover
  3. Dance Me to the End of Love
  4. Boogie Street
  5. Steer Your Way
  6. Everybody Knows
  7. Tower of Song
  8. Marianne
  9. 1000 Kisses Deep
  10. Suzanne
  11. Famous Blue Raincoat
  12. Nevermind
  13. First We Take Manhattan
  14. It Seemed the Better Way
  15. Hallelujah
  16. Treaty
  17. The Future (encore song)