Dance Me – Music by Leonard Cohen

Choreography Ihsan Rustem, Andonis Foniadakis, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, music Leonard Cohen
Ballets Jazz Montréal
Sadler's Wells

Dance Me - Ballets Jazz Montréal Credit: Rolando Paolo Guerzoni
Dance Me - Ballets Jazz Montréal Credit: Rolando Paolo Guerzoni
Dance Me - Ballets Jazz Montréal Credit: Rolando Paolo Guerzoni
Dance Me - Ballets Jazz Montréal Credit: Rolando Paolo Guerzoni
Dance Me - Ballets Jazz Montréal Credit: Rolando Paolo Guerzoni

A compilation of Leonard Cohen’s iconic songs, poems, musings and a dance homage to the man who died 7 November 2016, but before he died, he approved the songs chosen for this tender dance memorial to an intriguing personality. He never got to see the finished product.

Ballets Jazz Montréal from Cohen’s home town are brought from Canada by Robomagic Live, whose founder brought Cohen back to the stage in 2008—I was there in a packed O2 arena—packed with people of all ages and all walks of life. Tonight, the audience seems to be made up of golden oldies loyal to Cohen all these years. They are not disappointed.

Nostalgia—the recorded music they could listen to at home, but it’s a collective experience. And the music is so danceable, the beat regular, Middle-European, Klezmer, but it’s that voice, deepening with the years, that sends tingles down the spine.

A dozen or more songs, many narrative, are made for dance, and I wonder what Hofesh Shechter, William Forsythe or Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon would have made of them, but then I read Ihsan Rustem has worked with them and many more. As has Andonis Foniadakis: Ohad Naharin springs to my mind, and yes he’s worked with him.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa has choreographed only one piece, a duet, and it's the standout number to "It Seemed the Better Way" from his You Want It Darker album released seventeen days before his death. Why? Because it’s intimate, and Cohen is nothing if not intimate. And spiritual. It’s a saying goodbye duet, poignant and heartrending.

The company has invested a lot of time and love on this eighty-minute evening. It’s beautifully structured with dramatic dark (what else for Cohen…) lighting (excellent lighting design and production from Cédric Delorme-Bouchard and Simon Beetschen who remind me of Michael Hulls’s work). Video design by Gonzalo Soldi, Thomas Payette, Jeremy Fassio (of HUB Studio) is cinematic: Cohen’s words (from "I’m Your Man") are written on screen and then erased.

The fifteen dancers are mostly in black suits (costume design Philippe Dubuc), or bare torsos for the men. Occasionally, a girl in red or white hits the scene. The dance vocabulary is grounded, contact work is great, but Cohen’s ghost so dominates that the dancers feel like the backing group. Now Cohen always had the best backing groups and musicians. But I am brought down to earth when Hannah Kate Galbraith and Astrid Dangeard (she also sings "Marianne") sing "Hallelujah" (1984) live.

Songs, ranging from "Suzanne", "Marianne" (both 1967), and "Famous Blue Raincoat" (1971), through to "First We Take Manhattan" (1988), "Tower of Song" (1988), "Everybody Knows" (2001), "Dance Me to the End of Love" (Live in London, 2009), "Nevermind" (2014) and "A Thousand Kisses Deep" (poem) and many more, Dance Me is a considered collage, formulaic movement vying with his verbal articulacy.

Originally conceived by the Artistic Director at the time, Louis Robitaille (Alexandra Damiani took over in 2021), directed by Eric Jean, Dance Me tries to encapsulate the man and his philosophy in episodic sketches, which meld into one. Cohen’s vocal rumblings drive the sexy flexible young bodies determined to please.

We hear him reading his farewell letter to his former lover Marianne on her deathbed. Watch Nick Broomfield’s 2019 documentary film of their love affair… There is an almost constant silhouette of a man in raincoat and fedora, a ghost traversing the scene. Light relief comes from a comic routine with a row of typewriters, semaphoring hands and synchronized legs.

A sexy red mouth (lovely teeth) turns into a series of mouths—not Beckett’s Not I then… Martial arts aikido sticks (Cohen was into Eastern philosophy) feature and lots of running about. Solos, duets, quartets that seamlessly grow into sextets and fleeting ensemble, but it’s the silhouettes and the snow falling on a single spot that stay in the mind. Time for contemplation amongst the frenetic activity...

Founded in 1972, the company celebrated fifty years last year; Cohen died 2016; Dance Me premièred a year later in Montréal. Damiani says the company is “thrilled to be performing Dance Me – Music by Leonard Cohen for the first time in London […] in a city that held such importance to him during his lifetime…” It was here he recorded his eighteenth album in 2008.

So yes, "Dance Me to the End of Love" couldn't be more apt. But what about that ”twenty years of boredom” line? Some find Cohen’s work monotonous or dirge-like, others fall for it. I want it at my funeral.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

Are you sure?