Is it really jazz? Montreal company bridges styles and builds audiences – Les Ballets Jazz
You notice the dancers, first and last. First because they exude an awesome sizzle, an explosive precision and energy that surges through any evening of Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal. Last because the electrical charge is unforgettable, setting new standards. It’s always been like this.
Although the faces have changed during the company’s thirty-one years, this physical exultation, this dancing for the pure hell of it, is BJM’s trademark. Even during the early dark days of floundering finances, the tightly knit band of committed and seemingly inexhaustible dancers emerged as a big Canadian success story. Even as its repertoire changed from fingersnapping, pelvis-thrusting predictability to sinuous hot/cool contemporary reflections, its exhilarating dancing pushed the limits.
These days the company continues to be about dancers who can dance anything. Now into his fifth year as artistic director, Louis Robitaille has broadened the definition of jazz music and the horizons of jazz dance. Today the twelve-member company performs a sophisticated repertoire by upcoming international contemporary dance choreographers. Appearing frequently on several continents, BJM opens the Jazz Dance World Congress in Buffalo, New York, August 6, 2003, and plans a week at The Joyce Theater in New York City December 2-7. A major, two-month U.S. tour is planned for spring 2004, starting in Laramie, Wyoming, and ending in West Palm Beach, Florida, with stops in Hawaii, Scottsdale, and Philadelphia.
“We really work on spirit,” Robitaille said of the unsurpassed joy that is the backbone of BJM. So bewitching is this exuberance that public opinion occasionally overshadows artistic instinct. For example, choreographer Mia Michaels’s No Strings Attached (1999), which Robitaille says reflects the company’s original energy, has audiences around the world clamoring to see it with the result that the company feels obliged to dance it again–and again. “I cannot get rid of this ballet. It really works,” Robitaille complained good-naturedly. Aware that success can mask pitfalls, he takes care to keep the ballet fresh by rotating three casts. “We have to be careful not to burn down. We have three teams. That sounds hard to do with twelve dancers. We are very, very careful with casting.”
A decade ago, when BJM began to move away from traditional jazz accompaniment, critics from within and without the company nagged that it was negating its heritage. Defining BJM as a company in which disciplined, classically trained dancers perform commissioned works in a fusion of styles to commissioned music, Robitaille noted that he is continuing the company’s evolution by acknowledging its philosophy of dancing to jazz music whenever possible. That’s important, he said, but not mandatory. “Success with audiences is my goal. Dance isn’t one thing anymore. To stay in one [jazz] direction will kill the company. We have to respect what dance is today,” and move with the times.
BJM showcases interpreters’ talents while encouraging a new generation of choreographers, those who have been influenced by what Robitaille calls “biggies”–such as Jiri Kylian and William Forsythe. The current repertoire includes pieces by Canada’s Crystal Pite, Shawn Hounsell, and Dominique Dumais, France’s Patrick Delcroix, and America’s Trey McIntyre and Michaels. A former dancer and choreographer with Ballett Frankfurt, Pite is currently BJM’s resident choreographer. Works by Brazil’s Rodrigo Pederneiras and France’s Angelin Preljocaj are on the company wish list.
UNLIKE SOME COMPANIES,
BJM involves dancers in artistic decisions. “They feel important. They don’t feel like instruments–they are artists. A big problem in dance these days is that dancers are treated like numbers. It’s disgusting. Many artistic directors and choreographers don’t respect dancers. But not here. Here it’s a team work,” according to Robitaille, who retired from dancing only two years ago after a twenty-five-year career that began when he won a scholarship to BJM’s school.
In his late teens and 20s, he was the flamboyant star dancer of Montreal’s Ballets Eddy Toussaint, making numerous guest appearances around the world and appearing with such outstanding artists as Rudolf Nureyev, Rudy Bryans, Michael Denard, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. He learned the masterworks of the neoclassical and contemporary repertoires during a decade with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, directed Le Jeune Ballet du Quebec, and founded two project-oriented companies: Bande a part and Danse-Theatre de Montreal.
Likely because working conditions are good, BJM dancer turnover has been slow in recent years. Many have stayed for ten years or more. It wasn’t always that way. In the days when BJM spent most of its time on the road, burnout took a toll on dancers. In 1990, for example, the company replaced twelve of fourteen dancers. Eric J. Miles and Robert Rubinger joined that season and weathered four artistic directors in eight years until Robitaille’s appointment. The period of instability was triggered by the retirement of founder/director Genevieve Salbaing. First William Whitener, then Mauricio Wainrot, then Yvan Michaud succeeded her. All of them complained that she interfered with their artistic decisions.
Although he knows his dancing career is coming to a close, 36-year-old Rubinger looks fondly at his thirteen years with BJM. “It’s an easy atmosphere here. The people, the respect, and the environment are as perfect as you could get.”
Miles stayed with BJM because he felt like a part of its evolution. Now, he said, he can’t imagine dancing with any other group. Robitaille is always pushing the company to a higher level and encourages dancers to voice their feelings about his plans, he explained.
Because it performs before diverse audiences in all parts of the world, choosing repertoire to suit varied tastes is one of Robitaille’s most difficult tasks. “You have to know your audiences,” he said. In Asia, the U.S., and Canada (except for Montreal), spectators like to be entertained. Montreal, like Europe, is “very connected, very up-to-date, and prefers the avant-garde.”
Touring makes other demands. For example, after its annual two-week residency in a Quebec arts camp in July, BJM is scheduled to fly to Italy, Greece, and Cyprus, returning August 4 to appear in Buffalo August 6 and on a 3,000-seat outdoor stage in Montreal August 7.
“The schedule was too crazy,” Robitaille admitted. He conferred with the dancers, and Lourdes Gracia solved the Buffalo problem by agreeing to perform a new solo, Sooo, by American choreographer Charlotte M. Griffin to music by Roberta Flack. This solo is unusual for BJM because it’s very slow, “a non-gymnastic solo compared to the high energy of our normal programs,” Robitaille said.
If these performances go as well as others BJM has given throughout its history, dancers and spectators are sure to go home satisfied.
LES BALLETS JAZZ DE MONTREAL AT A GLANCE
LES BALLETS JAZZ DE MONTREAL
3450 ST-URBAIN STREET, MONTREAL, QUEBEC, H2X 2N5
514.982.6771; FAX 514.982.9145
ARTISTIC DIRECTOR: Louis Robitaille
ASSOCIATE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR: Eric-Abel Baland
BALLET MASTERS: Jean-Yves Esquerre (in Montreal); Fabrice Lemire (on tour)
* Annual budget: $1.5-2 million
* 12 dancers, 2 apprentices, ages 19-40. There are no principal dancers.
* 38-42-week contract; non-union company
* Applicants can audition in Montreal or in tour locations by taking the daily ballet class with the company.
* All performances are to recorded music, some of which is commissioned.
* Venues: All over the world, such as The Joyce Theater in New York, Le Theatre du Nouveau Monde in Montreal
* Touring: Four to five months each year, usually including master classes and lecture-demonstrations according to the venue’s demand.
* No official school. BJM offers an annual summer residency program at L’Academie internationale de musique et de danse of Le Domaine Forget in Saint-Irenee, Quebec.
When Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal was founded in 1972 by Genevieve Salbaing with Eva Van Gencsy and Eddy Toussaint, the company performed only to jazz music. But since Artistic Director Louis Robitaille’s arrival in 1998, its repertoire has become more eclectic, musically and choreographically.  Robitaille’s mission is to showcase the talents of his dancers, all of whom have a strong background in classical ballet, while encouraging a new generation of choreographers. The repertoire has included works by Ulysses Dove, John Cranko, Vicente Nebrada, Lynne Taylor-Corbett, David Parsons, Margo Sappington, and William Whitener; currently the company is performing the dances of Resident Choreographer Crystal Pite, Shawn Hounsell, Dominique Dumais, Patrick Delcroix, Mia Michaels, and Trey McIntyre, among others.  The company has appeared in fifty-eight countries on five continents before two million spectators.
A senior Montreal dance critic, Linde Howe-Beck has been a DANCE MAGAZINE contributor for more than twenty-five years. She writes for a wide variety of international publications.
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