“Just immerse your ears in spellbinding words and music, and feast your eyes on the kaleidoscope of images that unfold before you”
Dance Me, a choreographic tribute to the words and music of the late, great Leonard Cohen, might seem an incongruous project for the Ballets Jazz Montreal. There’s the obvious Montreal connection, of course. Both were born there. But it’s a daring move on the part of director and dramaturg Eric Jean to choose to create an evening of dance around the work of an artist like Cohen, whose words and music demand your full attention. But then, both Ballets Jazz Montreal and Leonard Cohen like to defy expectation, I suspect.
Cohen died in 2016, well known and loved. As he himself wryly recognized, he could look forward to “a huge posthumous career”. Dance Me certainly falls into that category. It’s not just a sense of shared roots that brings Ballet Jazz Montreal and Leonard Cohen together though. Cohen’s work reveals the influences from many cultures, both literary, philosophical and spiritual, just as the Ballet Jazz Montreal reveals its multicultural influences in the fluid, yet muscular; surreal yet gymnastic, movements of its work. This unlikely match, then, produces a fusion of blunt physicality that merges seamlessly with Cohen’s powerful emotions. The irony is there as well. Something Cohen himself seems to have recognized, as he gave this project his blessing before he died.
The title of the show, Dance Me, comes from Dance Me To The End Of Love, a perennial favourite of fans. But the show does not launch into an energetic attention getter of Cohen’s greatest hits. Dance Me begins quietly, in darkness, with spoken words from an early poem, Prayer for the Messiah. With a mood established that is completely Leonard Cohen, the dance begins. Choreographers Adonis Foniadakis, Ihsan Rustem and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, weave together a sinuous evening from meditative beginnings. The choreography of Dance Me evokes both Cohen’s distinctive gritty voice and the unabashed mix of spirituality and eroticism that characterizes his work. Dancers Yosmell Calderon Mejias, Alyssa Allen, Gustavo Barros, John Canfield, Diana Cedeno, Astrid Dangeard, Hannah Kate Galbraith, Shanna Irwin, Ausia Jones, Jordan Lang, Austin Lichty, Marcel Mejia, Andrew Mikhaiel and Eden Solomon bring a variety of looks to the line up, whether part of solos, duets, trios or more. The choreography allows them by turn to heighten the depth of feeling so recognizable in Cohen’s art.
All Cohen’s best known poems are there, including Suzanne, Boogie Street, Dance Me To The End Of Love, Everybody Knows, A Thousand Kisses Deep, and the iconic Hallelujah. Dance Me is a celebration of words, music and dance, but it’s also a celebration of light and darkness. The lighting (designed by Cédric Delorme-Bouchard and Simon Beetschen) is an integral part of the show, and under the direction of Eric Jean, moves to its own precise choreography. It illuminates the dancers in constantly changing, dramatic pools of light. Video design from the HUB Studio projects Cohen like figures on stage. The shape of the man as well as his instantly recognizable sound, are all there, echoed as well in the costumes of the dancers (designed by Philippe Dubuc).
Dance Me is a great evening out at Sadler’s Wells. It’s no accident that it’s been scheduled so closely to Valentine’s Day. So by all means take your beloved out for a special date night. But, single or partnered, take Dance Me as an opportunity to forget the weight of expectation. Just immerse your ears in spellbinding words and music, and feast your eyes on the kaleidoscope of images that unfold before you. You’ll come away with an added appreciation for how very different kinds of art can be combined to reinforce the other. And if you’ve had the forethought to upload Cohen’s poems on your Kindle before leaving for Sadler’s Wells, you’ll be able to maintain the mood for the journey home.
“Jungr is a consummate and very emotional performer”
Leonard Cohen was once asked by Bob Dylan over lunch how long it took him to write ‘Hallelujah’. The songwriter said two years. He then asked Dylan how long it took him to write ‘I and I’, one of Cohen’s favourites of the American. Dylan replied – about fifteen minutes. Whether this is true or not it helped shape the long-standing debate over which of the two iconic songwriters has had more impact on the worlds of music and literature. Especially when Bob Dylan became the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Many say it should have been Cohen. Whilst Dylan’s lyrics may appear more complex and thoughtful, the time that Cohen invested in his work betrays just how nuanced and poetic his writings were.
But while these two sides bicker, the rest of us can share, and enjoy, the fact that they both command the same respect, and both share the same bracing power and control over lyrics and melodies. And in life they both shared the same undimmed respect for each other.
This is NOT a review of the two great songsmiths, but it is important to acknowledge their place in the history of music and their sheer skill in mastering the craft of the ‘love song’, which can change the way you think and feel. Deep, truthful, and often self-deprecating. And it is with this trio of attributes that Barb Jungr leads us through a snapshot of their work in an hour-long revue, live at Crazy Coqs – simultaneously streamed as an equally ‘live’ experience.
Jungr’s self-deprecating style is writ large from the off. It’s a technique that only the truly talented can pull off. “I’ve actually forgotten what it is I do” she quips; “I did this last night and it was… it was alright… I’m aiming for better tonight. But trust me, I don’t know what I’m doing”. These throwaway lines that litter the show belie the virtuosity of Jungr’s vocal technique, passion, insight, and innovative reinterpretations of some of Cohen’s and Dylan’s songs. From the opening number; Dylan’s ‘Love Is Just a Four Letter Word’, we are aware of the beauty of her phrasing, and her ability to make the words her own. The familiar becomes unfamiliar which in turn makes the emotions behind the words and melodies more recognisable. Although I realise that probably doesn’t make much sense. Accompanied throughout the evening by the wonderful Jenny Carr on piano, the musical arrangements are subtle yet conspicuous. Again, that doesn’t make sense either – but the two of them onstage make perfect sense of the material.
A pair of Cohen’s songs follow: ‘So Long Marianne’ and ‘What Happened to the Heart?’. A lesser know Dylan track, ‘Isis’, is followed by ‘Forgetful Heart’, the song that gives the show its title, during which Jungr pulls out the harmonica – a moment Dylan would have been proud of. Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ is given a sassy, sarcastic, don’t-mess-with-me kind of treatment which is thrillingly refreshing. Jungr admits to being slightly nervous about including that song in the repertoire but explains that Carr persuaded her into it because it’s got that “Leo Sayer bit in it” – a lovely tongue in cheek reference to a past plagiarism lawsuit (you have to be a bit of an anorak to appreciate some of the humour).
‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ has the feel of Jacques Brel’s ‘Funeral Tango’, and we get another sense of the depth Jungr can dig into the original intent of the song. She exposes new meanings that we (and possibly the writers themselves) might not have known were there. She closes the show, without ceremony, with Cohen’s ‘Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’ – Cohen’s sparse guitar picking replaced by Carr’s haunting piano arpeggios.
It is often difficult to get the full impact of a live show when it is being streamed into your front room, but with Jungr, you get much more than a hint of the live experience. Which is quite a feat. Jungr is a consummate and very emotional performer; and if you can catch this streamed show on demand there’s no doubt that you will be inspired to keep your eyes peeled for news of future live shows. Cohen and Dylan knew how to write the perfect love song – Jungr certainly knows how to sing them.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Live at The Crazy Coqs until 19th June – the live streamed show will be available on demand for a short period. For Barb Jungr concert dates around the UK visit www.barbjungr.co.uk