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BJM Plumbs Leonard Cohen's Songbook for an Ambitious New Show

BJM's Benjamin Mitchell and Kennedy Kraeling. Photo by Marc Montplaisir, Courtesy BJM.

In a surprising move last February, Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal announced it had struck a deal giving it worldwide exclusive dance and circus rights to legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen's repertoire for five years. The particularity of the terms and Cohen's godlike status in his hometown of Montreal indicated this was not business as usual for the company. BJM's ambitious Cohen-inspired show, Dance Me, debuts December 5–9 in Montreal, and then begins extensive touring nationally and internationally.


The show contains a selection of beloved songs from Cohen's vast songbook, and evokes five seasons in "the cycles of human existence" (from young adulthood to death), according to a company press release. Three of BJM artistic director Louis Robitaille's favorite choreographers, Andonis Foniadakis, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Ihsan Rustem, along with stage director Eric Jean, have crafted the dances. Each of Dance Me's "seasons" will have its own creative identity fashioned by a designated choreographer. Robitaille promises the show will incorporate multimedia and feature live singers onstage.

Negotiations to obtain the rights to use Cohen's work began three years ago, says Robitaille. The project was conceived to celebrate Montreal's 375th anniversary, mark Canada's 150th festivities and highlight Robitaille's 20 years at the helm of BJM during its 45th anniversary. According to Robitaille, Cohen was not initially sold on having his work set to dance or circus. But Cohen's lawyer, Robert Kory, saw BJM perform and his endorsement led the singer-songwriter to give the commission the green light.

Though this project was put in motion prior to Cohen's death last year, at age 82, his demise brought a poignant urgency to Dance Me. "Cohen's spirit is there the entire evening," explains the 35-year-old Rustem, who has created about a half-hour of material based on eight songs. Like many, he's loved Cohen's music, but this project has forced him "to find my voice" in Cohen's powerful insights into the human experience.

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