Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal opened their triple-bill show at the Royal Theatre in Victoria (Feb. 26 and 27, 2016) with “Rouge,” choreographed by the Brazilian Rodrigo Pederneiras, conceptualized as an “ode to resilience, a discreet tribute to Native peoples and their musical and cultural legacy,” with original music by the brothers Grand (originally premièred in 2014). The piece can be described as a mix of Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, with its fragmented, broken-down movements and a defiance of classical ballet vocabulary, woven in with elements of synchronized jumps and kicks à la Riverdance, and many elements of modern dance. This pastiche of styles allows the company dancers to show off their skills as an ensemble and as individual solo dancers.
The company’s mission statement is to “provoke emotion through contemporary dance,” and at that they certainly succeed. Founded in 1972 by the Parisian-born classical dancer Geneviève Salbaing, who moved to Montreal in 1946 and joined Ludmilla Chiriaeff’s company, now Les Grands Ballets Canadien de Montréal, and subsequently became the first Artistic Director of Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal until 1992. The Hungarian-born Eva Von Gencsy, who trained at the Russian Academy in Budapest, danced as a soloist in Salzburg, and after emigrating to Canada in 1948, performed with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadien de Montréal. She became the co-founder of BJM, combining her interest in jazz dance with classical ballet, and creating a fusion that would be the trademark of the company for many years.
Quebec’s formerly renowned dancer Louis Robitaille took over as Artistic Director in 1998, promoting the values of openness, community, and diversity, and transforming the company into a genuine research laboratory, where the dancers are given the opportunity to develop alongside internationally renowned creators and choreographers. As one of Canada’s most popular dance companies, BJM has presented more than 2,000 performances in 66 countries to more than two million spectators.
The second piece of the evening was “Mono Lisa,” choreographed by the Israeli-born Itzik Galili, and performed by principal dancer Céline Cassone and Mark Francis Caserta (this piece recently premièred in Montreal in December 2015). Lit by several rows of spotlights, this contemporary pas de deux is danced to sounds of a typewriter set to rhythmic music composed by Itzik Galili and Thomas Höfs. The rust-coloured costumes designed by Natasja Lansen allow the couple to twist and turn, twine and entwine in extraordinary convolutions and rapidity, with the partners always defying gravity. The incredible acrobatics on pointe are executed with breathtaking control.
The French-born Céline Cassone, recently profiled in Dance Magazine, has been a principal dancer in the company since 2008. She demonstrated her incredible flexibility and technique in this piece in partnership with Mark Francis Caserta, a native of Pennsylvania, who has been with BJM since 2014. Both dancers are a pleasure to watch in this innovative and interesting ballet. The audience gasped each time Mark stretched Céline’s legs beyond average flexibility, and they both received a standing ovation.
Very contemporary in its current approach, BJM performances are sexy, explosive, original and energetic, and its superb dancers are widely acclaimed. The term “jazz” in the name now refers more to a “jazzing up” of classical ballet rather than a musical or dance style.
And finally the highlight of the evening was the third piece “Kosmos,” choreographed by the Greek choreographer based in France, Andonis Foniadakis, to captivating music by Julien Tarride (premièred in 2014). This highly energetic and breathtaking choreography was inspired by the movements of crowds, moments of agitation, and the hustle and bustle of the city. Often frenetic movement turns into graceful dance that brings people together in a joyous, liberating fashion.
For this piece, Dance Victoria organizers rightly warned the audiences to “fasten your seat belts and remember to breathe!” The energy, pace, and movements are truly breathtaking. The costumes for this piece were designed by the Montreal men’s wear designer Philippe Dubuc. The ways in which this piece is lit by lighting designer James Proudfoot makes it seems that the dancers move their arms and legs faster than the eye can follow. So it looks something like this:
In this piece, some of the most memorable performances were by the Florida-native Jeremy Coachman, Gemma Freitad from Buffalo, NY, and Quebec-native Pier-Loup Lacour. The ensemble flows in and out of dynamic formations, breaks into groups, couples, and solos, to regroup towards the end in a sparkling spectacle of light. At the heart of the piece is a love story danced by the principal dancers Céline Cassone and Minnesota-born Alexander Hille, who joined the company in 2011 and was promoted to principal dancer in 2014.
In all my years of watching and writing about dance – classical and modern, in Europe and North America – I have never seen a male dancer outperform and outshine female principal dancers (mostly because the way most dance pieces are choreographed, with the male dancers supporting, lifting, bending, carrying and engaging the female dancers who are thus made the centre of attention). Until now – in this piece. Alexander Hille stole the show and the spotlight with his captivating presence on stage, his graceful movements, masterful technique and athleticism that command the audience’s gaze and make it almost difficult to focus on the other dancers. He dominates every constellation (in pas de deux, company formations, or in his solos) and does not release your gaze until the very end. This is what it must have been like to see Nijinsky or Nureyev dance live.
I got in touch with Alexander Hille after the performance and he was kind enough to take the time to answer a few interview questions.
K.S: Who is your favourite choreographer to work with? And why?
A.H: To say who my favourite choreographer to work with is a very loaded question. I have worked with a lot of great dance makers throughout my career, and luckily, have had many very positive experiences (as well as a few less positive). That being said, there are a few that stick out to me. Working with Alexander Ekman was a particular thrill, he had this amazing energy and ingenuity. He came into the studio, took a look at my partner and I, sat down and “set the scene” so to speak for the piece that he wanted to make for us. At that time we thought he was insane, but the work he made for us, was made in record time, was thoughtful, funny, very challenging, and what he pulled out of us was more than I thought that I could give at that time.
Another great experience for me that has sort of followed me into my professional career, was working with Benjamin Millepied. I worked with him originally with a few of my classmates on an Opera at Juilliard, in collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera. Shortly after joining BJM, I started to learn a piece of his called “Closer” with his long-time friend and colleague Céline Cassone, that we now have performed on multiple occasions as guests with his company L.A. Dance Project. I think what I liked most about working with him, is that he seemed appreciative, he made this sort of relaxed environment when he created, and honestly it just made me want to work harder for him. Benjamin’s style also encompasses all of what feels natural to my body as well, he has this classical lineage, it’s deeply rooted in him, but there is something more organic to his movement than in ballet. Somehow he is able to combine classical aesthetics with contemporary movement and concepts, for me it just feels natural.
Lastly, working with Andonis Foniadakis for the piece “KOSMOS” changed me as an artist and athlete. If I may say so in the kindest way possible, he’s totally crazy in the studio, he demands a lot but in a way that is only beneficial to us. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like he was able to come in the studio and slowly but surely see our potential, and then he gave it to us. In my professional career it’s the single experience where I felt I grew the most. In addition to my experience with him in the studio I found him to be genuinely inquisitive about the world around him, and admire the way that he is able to see things.
What distinguishes Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal from other major ballet companies?
There are a few things that really set BJM apart from other companies. I would say the largest being the amount that we tour. The company is called Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, but we rarely perform in Montreal. Because of the rate that the company commissions creations, or resetting of existing ballets, it takes anywhere from 2-3 years to have an entirely new show to present, which explains why we are often touring our existing repertory just about everywhere, until the cycle can start again.
I don’t think I can write about the company without speaking about the amount of energy that is required to accomplish a given performance. It is the aesthetic of our Director Louis Robitaille, he loves the “POW” as he says! I think this is something that is deeply rooted in the company’s identity, that sets it apart from other companies.
What do you like most about Montreal? Do you have a favourite place/hand-out/café there?
Montreal is an incredible city, there’s really something for everyone. I wasn’t immediately excited about Montreal when I moved from Manhattan, but now Montreal really feels like home. What I like best about the city is the overall vibe. People are inquisitive, diverse, they have something to say, or are looking for something. I feel like I’m surrounded by a lot of people who are on similar journeys to my own. I love the restaurant, coffee, and club scene. If you are bored in Montreal, it’s really your own fault, there’s no excuse, unless of course you have made a date with your couch and Netflix… this is another story.
My favourite Montreal restaurants: Big in Japan, La Buvette chez Simone, Garde Manger, Cabotins, and Sushi Momo.
My favourite cafés: Kitsuné, Myriad, and Pikolo.
My favourite clubs: Ecole Privée, Velvet Underground, and Felix.
What is your dream piece to dance or choreograph?
I have dabbled a bit with my own choreography, but it’s not really my focus right now. I look forward to a later moment in my career, when I can be more active in that creative path. As far as a dream piece to perform, it’s a bit difficult to say. Personally, I am much more interested in the creative process, so I would say that one day I hope to work with people like Crystal Pite, Johan Inger, Roy Assaf, Ivan Perez, and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
For KOSMOS, you guys got to work with Montreal designer Philippe Dubuc, how was that?
Honestly, we only saw Phillip for fittings, but he and his assistant were extremely kind, and produced beautiful sleek looks for KOSMOS.
You are involved in the Montreal fashion scene, do you have favourite designers there?
My favourite Montreal designers are hands down, Pedram Karimi, Travis Taddeo, and UNTTLD (José Manuel St-Jacques, and Simon Bélanger).
What is it about dancing that you can’t live without? What moves you?
There are a number of reasons as to why I love dance. Some days it’s the physicality of it, the exercise, the endorphins, others it’s a quest towards the perfection of technique. When I enjoy dance the most, it actually starts in a selfish place, I use dance to work through whatever I am going through in my life. Some days dance for me is mundane, and dancing becomes my fight against that. At times dance is celebratory, and I’m just ecstatic to move and share that feeling. But as an artist this sort of selfish starting place somehow becomes a tool to exhibit real emotions that in turn portray something very real to others. So then I see it as sort of a Hippocratic idea that something good can come from what I see as me working through my own shit! It’s a really a loaded question, but at this point I can’t see my life without it. It’s really something that I feel I need to do, and it feels good to have such a sense of purpose.
What was the highlight or your favourite part about performing in Victoria?
I would say the highlight of Victoria was the warm embrace we received from everyone. We felt so welcomed and taken care of, it made me want to give even more for the people because it seemed like they really cared.
BJM is off to France to continue their tour in Europe, before returning to Quebec in late April and off again to New York in May. If you would like to see more of Alexander Hille, follow him on Instagram at Alexander_hille.
Photo credits: Raphaelle Bob Garcia, Leda & St.Jacques, Ted McConnell, Svetla Atanasova, and Eric Paré.