Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal
Feb. 8, 2018
by Christopher Hyde
Those fortunate enough to be in Merrill Auditorium Thursday night witnessed one of the first presentations of “Casualties of Memory,” premiered by Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal (BJM) earlier this month in Boston. With choreography by Itzik Galili to a percussion score by Les Frères Grand, it is destined to become an instant classic of modern dance. Thanks once again to Portland Ovations for bringing it here so fast.
The ballet is long, taking up all of the first half of Thursday night’s program, but the spectacular drumming by Joseph Khoury would carry the piece all by itself, even if it were not matched by the equally astounding dancing on stage. (Disclaimer: I used to drive to Manhattan from college in Easton, Pa. to hear drum riffs by Gene Krupa at Eddie Condon’s. Some at Merrill thought the primitive percussion was overpowering, but I thought it was just right.)
The ballet attempts, quite successfully, to blur the distinctions between genders, starting with patriarchal, male-dominated postures and progressing to what Freud called polymorphous perversity, in which the movements, lifts and postures of the dancers transcend distinctions between male and female.
And what postures they are. One would never guess that the human anatomy had so many possibilities, their transformations executed so smoothly that the changing patterns took on the nature of a kaleidoscope.
When the dancers lined up, the series of poses from left to right (or vice versa) seemed like mysterious runes or hieroglyphics, spelling out a prophecy if one could only decipher them. At all times, the coordination of the dancers was uncanny.
The lighting, in this and the ballets that followed, was a member of the company in itself, emphasizing aspects down to individual muscle groups, isolating or uniting related actions, and establishing contrasts that highlighted everything. Simple—three rows of spotlights in perspective— effective, “and cheap,” as the choreographer pointed out in a video clip.
The next two ballets were completely different, but equally exciting in their own ways. The first was a bitter-sweet salute to Canadian poet and musician Leonard Cohen, with songs taking the company through the seasons in Montreal. A pas de deux to “Suzanne,” (1966) may not have “touched your perfect body with my mind,” but came close, in the most Romantic and classically influenced sequence of the evening.
The final ballet, “O Balcāo De Amor,” ended the program on a humorous note, depicting various loving or battling pairs (sometimes both) in a Cuban nightclub, to primarily Mamba music..
It is a complete comedia del arte, without a single word necessary to identify the stock characters, from the tutu-wearing ingenue to the unsuccessful lounge lizard in suspenders. Some of the dance moves were hysterical, such as the “worm’ executed on the side instead of the stomach. flopping like a fish out of water, or a Mermaid dragging her tight-skirted tail up the beach. One gets so carried away by the stories as to forget the superb quality of the dancing that depicts them.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.