BJM Danse dazzles in eclectic program

Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal in “Harry,” choreographed by Barak Marshall. © photos Gregory Batardon

With an athletic style rooted in ballet and yet wonderfully hip, Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal returned to UC San Diego’s Mandeville Auditorium on Thursday after a three-year absence.

The program of three new dances includes “Zero in On,” featuring the jointless ballerina Celine Cassone and Kevin Delaney. In the work choreographed by Cayetano Soto, a white square of flooring and a low-hanging light pole shrink the stage to make the focus even more intense. Lifts are fluid and jaw-dropping, though spread-eagle legs are not always attractive.

Spidery thin and impossible to miss with her fire-red hair, Cassone is equally impressive in “Night Box,” a group work by Wen Wei Wang.

As Cassone and her partner inch closer to the stage edge, her feet crumble and we love her all the more because she is wounded.  The allure of the work is seeing street thugs become less angry and more loving.  Lighting and a birds-eye view of a city at night frame the urban setting.

“Harry,” by Israeli-American Barak Marshall, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, offers the most phenomenal dance experience.

Of note, the work made its U.S. premiere here in San Diego instead of New York.  Turns out, the company’s engagement at the Joyce Theatre was cancelled due to the wrath of Hurricane Sandy. How striking that “Harry” involves our capacity to overcome great conflicts.

In “Harry,” Marshall tells the story of a guy’s internal and external struggles in the context of a war zone.

Elegant Swing era costumes (Anne-Marie Veevaete) transport us back in time. Straight lines and grid patterns evoke thoughts of invasions.  Duets, trios and groups tell a lot about human interactions under stress, and humor wins out every time.

A catchy soundscape includes gunfire, Israeli folk songs and gems by Maria Callas and the Andrews Sisters.  The sequence set to “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” is an unforgettable display of unison and the tune is infectious. (If your Yiddish is a bit rusty, the translation is “To me you are beautiful.” Just Google it.)

It’s all quite harmless unless you fear balloons popping, but Marshall also tackles rage and death.

Poor Harry.  Mourners stand over his dead body and within seconds, they argue and break into fights.  The scene could be a tribute to Italian filmmakers and their fondness for trench coats, scarves and dark glasses.

Marshall’s movement abounds with simple gestures and isolations. The level of skill in placing hands to face and heart and flying into extensions at high speed is exceptional.

“Harry” has a few flaws. A section where women line up to offer Harry the lids of metal cooking pots that don’t fit – perhaps an allusion to Cinderella’s too small slipper – grows stale.  And while dancers are spot on in unison and exude personality, on Thursday, a few sections of dialogue were garbled, and not because of many charming accents.

BJM danseurs deserved the standing ovation at Mandeville, and they thanked the adoring crowd with a climatic encore set to Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen.”  Their joy and lovely starburst hand gestures were exhilarating and sent the audience out into the rain, bouncing to the beat and feeling invincible.






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