Los Angeles Dance Review: LES BALLETS JAZZ DE MONTRÉAL (The Wallis in Beverly Hills)

by Tony Frankel on January 11, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

MORE JAZZ, PLEASE

Interestingly, the work that opened Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal’s program last night at the Bram Goldsmith Theater in the brand new Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts was “Closer,” a 2006 duet by Benjamin Millepied. This globe-trotting dance-maker is the founding director of our own L.A. Dance Project, that tony, major-league contemporary ballet company which will premiere new commissions in February.

Millepied, a protégé to the ingenious Jerome Robbins, became a principal dancer with New York City Ballet in 2001, the same year he premiered his first original ballet.  Since then, he has choreographed over 30 ballets on stage and film (he begins his appointment as the next Director of the Paris Opera Ballet in September). As evidenced when Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève brought 3 of his works to L.A., a signature style appears to be emerging in his group pieces: there is a crafty and slightly off-balance partnering with a decidedly classical bent.

Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal.But his duet “Closer,” danced by Alexander Hille and Céline Cassone, is a strange breed. Almost constantly intertwined or near each other, the pair is always fluid, but the work is tentative and seems intentionally repetitious. Clearly, there’s some very cool moves, but he lifts, cradles and twirls her over and over to the point of ennui, and while Cassone’s extensions are amazing, these dancers can’t seem to find the classicism in Millepied’s choreography. Under Daniel Ranger’s gorgeously shifting lightscape, they nail some Robbins-esque skipping, but very few moments settle. Set to Philip Glass’s “Mad Rush,” which goes from soft undulations to hammering minimalistic fervor, the piece is less about the vibrant distinctions in the music than the gentle silences between them; some gentle floor work suggests a couple’s reluctance to fully bond (even in relaxed poses, Cassone is beautifully tense), but they’re too busy moving to do so.

“Night Box,” a 35-minute ensemble work by the Chinese-Canadian choreographer Wen Wei Wang, is a salute to nightlife in the city. Set to house, electronica, and techno-pop selections, Wang offers moves that play to the strength of the company. This is a jazz troupe, so think Fosse: these are dancers who are gymnasts and acrobats (both men and women can be thickly musclebound), so they just need to pop a knee or turn a head and they’re dancing.

Les Ballet Jazz de MontrealIt opens with a clump of nightclubbers throbbing to the pulsating music; soon, the collective breaks into individual selections: an exciting solo has a man display animalistic need with a mix of modern  and spinning street dance; a romantic pas de deux between two men suggests an abandoned one-night-stand; and slinky couples celebrate the liberation that comes with darkness. Most of these selections are framed by group goings-on; at one point, they’re postured dancing resembles the robotic movement from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It works when a girl is swept up into the action like a runaway on a wild binge, but there were other times that the background groups, though moving as a single entity, could distract from both the duets and one very sexy threesome. Backed by James Proudfoot’s moving light rods and Catherine Faucher’s gorgeous black-and-white urbanscape multimedia, the choreography characterizes the company’s contemporary character, but the piece is about the piece, not the dancers; as such, this work has enjoyable aspects, but ends up being frivolous, and is no better than that of other capable and glossy modern ensembles.

Whether it was the loud techno music or the fact that the first two pieces simply didn’t crackle, a large chunk of the mostly Westside audience departed at intermission. This is a shame, because “Harry,” by the Israeli-American choreographer Barak Marshall (who was in attendance), offered the meatiest piece, one which contained the eccentricity and jazzy flair this company does best.

Harry (Youri de Wilde) is looking for love, but instead of a glass slipper he has an empty pot; of the many women who try, only one (Ms. Cassone) has the perfect-fitting lid. Surrounding the abstract narrative are observations about the folly of war, the precariousness of adversity, and the battle of the sexes (death and rejection are represented by dancers popping smoke-filled red balloons). Highlighting these HARRY, by Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal.themes are Harry’s many funerals in the rain, during which dancers deliver dueling dialogue regarding existentialism.

Based on this work and Body Traffic’s Broad Stage presentation of Marshall’s “And at midnight…” last October, the son of performance artist Margalit Oved definitely has a signature style: Drenched in whimsy, charm, and commentary about relationships, Marshall incorporates rhythmic gesticulations and groupings that allow his dancers the freedom to create distinct personalities, which involves plenty of attitude and spitting. In a way, Marshall is referencing Pina Bausch, who also blurred the lines of dance, theater and performance art.

Still, the epic 40-minute piece contains jumbled storytelling, and the poor acting distracts from the fascinating uncredited dialogue. The very best thing about the piece is the soundtrack: Jazzy standards by original artists and Israeli folksongs. But it’s a bit strange that “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein,” “Stardust,” and Dorsey’s “Hawaiian War Chant” informed the work better than the company did.

It wasn’t a very dynamic night, but this beautiful new theater—with its intimacy and amazing sight lines—proves itself a force to be reckoned with when it comes to showcasing dance in Los Angeles.

photos by Gregory Batardon

Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal
Closer / Benjamin Millepied
Night Box / Wen Wei Wang
Harry / Barak Marshall
Bram Goldsmith Theater
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd.  in Beverly Hills
scheduled to end on January 11, 2014
for tickets, call 310-746-4000 or visit www.thewallis.org

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