Randy Swartz is an institution here; he’s been introducing Philadelphia audiences to dance from around the world for 50 years. Last year, he moved NextMove back its old home at the Annenberg Center, and I was not surprised when he opened the 2019-2020 season with the announcement that it would be his last with the series. He will be leaving NextMove in the capable hands of the Annenberg’s Christopher Gruits. I expect Swartz’s farewell season to be chock-full of bravura performances, and season opener Ballet Jazz de Montréal’s (BJM) is a sentimental favorite.
Swartz said that he first met Louis Robitaille, the company’s artistic director, in 1980, when Robitaille was just a young dancer. He’s been bringing Robitaille to Philadelphia almost since that beginning. BJM’s Dance Me, the full-length piece at the Annenberg, combined the work of three choreographers (Andonis Foniadakis, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, and Ihsan Rustem), enhanced by multimedia videography, to honor the life of Montreal’s beloved poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen, with fedoras and typewriters
In 2018, I reviewed an excerpt of Dance Me presented as a work in progress and found it the best part of a triple bill. Those fragments remain my favorites, with sexy, swaggery “Boogie Street” top of my list. The piece still feels fragmentary, though. It is less a cohesive whole than a collection of related short dances tied together by costume designer Phillipe Dubuc’s Cohen-esque slouchy suits and vests and fedoras, and by images of typewriters that remind us we are celebrating the work of a great poet. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but some judicious editing would have made a more successful program.
Visually, the piece is intriguing. Terra Kell took long steps across the stage on boxes that lit up to reveal images of manual typewriters as she stepped across them. The words of the song “I’m Your Man” appeared in typed letters across the backdrop, and dancers lay on their backs to “kick” the image of a typewriter between them as it bounced. In another piece, Yosmell Calderon as Leonard Cohen sat in silhouette at a typewriter while letters seemed to spill from the keys onto the screen behind him. The company, also dressed as Cohen and in silhouette, walked across the stage and stood around Calderon, witnesses and judges of the artist’s creation. It was an effective reminder that choreography includes not just dance, but all kinds of rehearsed movement, even letters on a screen.
The dancing was superb. Many of my favorite moments involved the whole company, but Shanna Irwin exemplified the strength of the dancers. Principal dancer Celine Cassone was called away on a family emergency and had to withdraw from the performance at the last minute. Cassone has a unique style, but Irwin stepped up with her own power and flexibility—her performance with Calderon in the “Suzanne” duet was pretty much seamless.
Although it lagged a bit in places, for the most part Dance Me thrilled the audience with virtuoso dancing and an unbeatable soundtrack.
A word about the words
I do not usually comment on program notes, but in this case, the credits obscured the details of the piece as much as the lighting obscured the dancers it left in silhouette. The company credits the three choreographers as a group, but not by the songs they brought to life. (“Suzanne” appears to have been choreographed by Rustem and not Foniadakis, as previously reported.) The songs are listed by date, not the order in which they occur in the performance, and one of them, “I’m Your Man,” is not listed at all. Given that the piece honors Cohen’s music, it is a shame that the company did not make it easier for the audience to identify pieces they might not have heard before.
What, When, Where
Dance Me. Choreography by Andonis Foniadakis, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, and Ihsan Rustem. Ballet Jazz de Montréal; presented by the Annenberg Center and NextMove Dance. September 26 through 28 at the Zellerbach Theatre of the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 898-3900 or nextmovedance.org.
The Annenberg Center accommodates the needs of individuals with physical disabilities. Details are available online. The Annenberg has a gender-neutral restroom.