At Mass MoCA: Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal -- BJM -- sets a new profile


NORTH ADAMS -- Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal is the full and traditional name of the company, but some years ago, Louis Robitaille, its ambitious, and clearly imaginative, artistic director, renamed it "BJM."

This sleeker, perhaps more hip appellation, a major component of the troupe's website designation, actually is more appropriate for the company's present situation, Robitaille suggested in a telephone conversation one afternoon last week from Vancouver, where he and his dancers had alighted during a bus tour of the provinces.

The original name was quite long to pronounce each time it was discussed, Robitaille explained with obvious amusement, "and we wanted to find something that was a little bit more reflective of our society now, when everything is very short. We started with ‘bjm_danse,'' which is still the email address, but now we use only ‘BJM.'"

Robitaille notes that the company, now in its fourth decade, indeed has altered its profile markedly.

"Dance itself has changed over the 40-year period," he said. "In the beginning it was a jazz dance company, but it became ballet contemporary, which is a fusion of all styles.

"I always give a simple example -- in English it's complicated," he explained in his heavily French accented articulation, "but you take a bag, which is for me classical ballet; this is the bag. Inside the bag you put different styles -- jazz, ballet, hip-hop, street dance, aboriginal or ethnic -- then you add visual arts, multimedia projections, sometimes even some athletic movement that is difficult. Take that bag, shake it, open it, and

it makes fusion dance, which is the new BJM personality."

The new personality that has captured Robitaille's heart and reflects his aims will be on display Saturday evening at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 3, when BJM mounts the big stage of Mass MoCA's Hunter Center for the annual collaboration with Jacob's Pillow Dance Fes tival where the company last appeared in 2010. The engagement coincides with the comprehensive exhibition, "Oh Can ada," now in its final month at the museum.

This weekend's dance program offers three diverse works by the kind of international choreographers who have brought the company international distinction and high regard from lovers of dance up north.

"Night Box," by Wen Wei Wang, a choreographer born in China who now resides and works in Canada, is a high-voltage dance that combines contemporary ballet with street dance, observed Robitaille.

"He did something very special for us, something very urban -- about the city, about the big city at night, men and women and all the encounters that can happen between human beings looking for somebody to share their lives, not only as lovers, but also for friendship."

Robitaille said the choreographer pulled the work's score from several different composers -- "very urban composers, very technical, city-beat technical."

"Harry," the program's other longer work, is by Barak Marshall, an American/Israeli dance-maker who lives and works in his native Los Angeles and Tel Aviv.

"Barak is a very interesting person, multi-talented, so he brought out all these influences into this creation," said Robi taille. "He likes to tell stories, and this is one of the great qualities that makes him different. We call this work ‘ballet-theater.'

"Harry, the central character, is trying to find love -- desperately -- and for 45 minutes he's constantly confronted with obstacles. He is surrounded in this dynamic of conflicts -- between men and women, between groups, cultures, religions. The dance is dark and cerebral, with some subjects like death, but he does it with a great sense of humor."

Marshall's score selections reportedly are as zany as some of "Harry's" scenario, spanning wide territory that includes an Andrews Sisters trademark tune, a Puccini aria and lively ruminations from a Polish band.

Spanish choreographer Caye tano Soto's "Zero In On," said to be a new take on the pas de deux and set to a keyboard score of Philip Glass, runs a brief seven minutes. But it's very special, Robitaille insists. "It's a big challenge for the two dancers, it is something very athletic, very demanding, like running the 100 meters."

Robitaille speaks with special affection about the company's 14 dancers, and his feeling is more than empathetic, for he began as one of them. A high school dance performance in 1973 brought him to the attention of Peter George, a physical education teacher and dancer with Les Ballets de Jazz de Montréal, leading to a scholarship to the company's summer program.

The next year, at age 16, Robitaille joined la Compagnie de danse Eddy TOUSSAINT (later Ballet de Montréal), and it is said that his blonde good looks and fine body proportions, along with a kind of untamed wildness in his dancing, led to his becoming a Québec icon. Later, he and his partner and now former wife, Anik Bissonnette, were hailed as Québec's "dancing darlings" of the 1980s. The two founded Danse-Théâtre de Montréal in 1995, and he was appointed artistic director of Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal in 1998.

The change from dancer to artistic director seemingly can be even more dramatic than that of a factory worker to a top management job in the corporate world.

"There is a drastic change in your behavior," Robitaille says. "A dancer is focused on himself, which is totally normal. We are artists. We are looking for perfection. You are working every day with your tools -- your instrument, your body -- and it takes a lot of time, a lot of attention, for you want to grow as an artist, so you are all the time focusing on yourself.

"And when you become responsible as artistic director, everything changes. You are taking care of everybody but yourself. You need to care for the company, for the vision, for the organization, for creation. You need to take care of the team -- 12 to 14 dancers, plus the ballet mistress, everyone working round the company, sometimes 18 or 20 on the tours, plus the board of the company.

"It's like being a tyrant, a mother or father."


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