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.
Photo by Jayme Thornton (3).
Benjamin Millepied’s Closer starts with the smallest of gestures: A woman brushes off the floor to rise on demi-pointe, leaning into her partner’s arm. But when Céline Cassone performs it, the force of her presence seems to bring the audience to a rapt silence. As the intimate pas de deux unfolded last March at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, she was a study in powerhouse control, the liquid grace of her tapered legs combining with fierce articulation.
Cassone’s highly expressive body, flexible yet muscular, has long been her calling card. “She moves on those pointe shoes as if she was a cat, combining the perfect classical lines with the fluidity of a contemporary dancer,” says Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who considers Cassone a longtime muse. But Cassone’s path in contemporary ballet has been a bumpy one, very nearly derailed by eating disorders and injuries. Now, as a leading dancer with Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal at age 37, the striking redhead is more in control of her prodigious instrument than ever before.
Cassone was born into a family of dancers in the south of France: Both her parents performed for Roland Petit before joining Le Ballet de l’Opera Grand Avignon, where her mother was a soloist and her father, Camille Cassone, became artistic director. “My mother had me when she was just 22, and I grew up in her dressing room,” Cassone remembers. “I was onstage as an extra from the age of 5. It’s as if I’d been programmed to dance.”
Cassone spent 10 years at Avignon’s local conservatory, but a classical career wasn’t in the cards for her. “I was too weak technically,” she says. “I had qualities, but I couldn’t do fouettés or jump. I stressed out over two pirouettes.” Her training came to an abrupt halt when she was expelled from the school at 15. “I was one of the oldest students, and I had gotten too comfortable: When I didn’t like to do something, I was very confrontational,” she remembers with a mix of regret and amusement.
Cassone took the opportunity to start her career, and joined Germany’s Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe. Fives years later, she tried her luck at the Béjart Ballet Lausanne. The move turned out to be ill-fated. “Maurice Béjart took me under his wing, and that bothered a few people, including a ballet mistress who was still dancing,” Cassone says. “I was alone, my confidence was very low and I practically stopped eating.” Losing weight was a way to reassure herself, she says, and a yearlong battle with anorexia and depression followed. “It was horrific. I was so weak that I fell onstage and badly injured my ankle.”
Getting back to full health was a long process. She enlisted a nutritionist to teach her to eat all over again and help her let go of her obsession with the scale. She also left Béjart, firmly believing she was done with dance.
But she accompanied a friend for support to a private audition with the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève—and was offered a job. The midsized company was on the rise with its wide-ranging repertoire, from Forsythe to Kylián to Ohad Naharin. “For the first time, I could work with outside choreographers and see what was happening in the world.” She flourished in the healthier atmosphere.
“Céline made me fall in love with the lines of classical ballet,” says Ochoa, who met Cassone in Geneva in 2005. “I never thought that I would enjoy creating neoclassical works. She changed that.”
In Geneva, Cassone also met Benjamin Millepied. “We clicked straightaway, and he asked if I could come to New York during the holidays to work on a pas de deux.” That pas de deux turned out to be Closer; Millepied reworked it from top to bottom for Cassone. She says, “It’s the most beautiful gift I’ve ever had.”
Despite her success, Cassone struggled with injuries. She suffered from everything from muscle tears to painful hip inflammation, which she attributes to physical weaknesses in her body. “There was always something, and it was very hard to get through it all. It wears you out.” As a result, she started researching new approaches to stay healthy, including tailor-made Pilates exercises.
Meanwhile, Cassone’s career took another turn when she bumped into a familiar face: Louis Robitaille, the director of Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal. Robitaille had been her mother’s guest partner when Cassone was a child. Despite a 19-year age difference, the two fell in love.
To move closer to Canada, in 2008 Cassone joined Christopher Wheeldon’s New York–based Morphoses (and continued dancing with Millepied’s Danses Concertantes). But she struggled with the pace and her insecurities. “I was petrified in class. I knew I was a more contemporary dancer, but I felt so out of place next to Wendy Whelan or Ashley Bouder. I put a lot of pressure on myself.”
Cassone with BJM's Alfredo Garcia Gonzalex in Cayetano Soto's Zero In On. Photos by John Hall, Courtesy BJM.
She has since hit her stride at Les Ballets Jazz, flourishing with the small, dynamic ensemble, which she joined in 2009. “I was the director’s wife, so I had to work twice as hard to prove myself, but I love the company,” she says. The 14-strong troupe, which produces one or two creations a year and is on the road most of the season, has allowed her to revel in contemporary choreography by Ochoa, Barak Marshall, Cayetano Soto and Andonis Foniadakis. Her dedication is exceptional, says Ochoa: “She will keep analyzing her part even after a rehearsal stops. I once joked to one of the ballet masters, asking him where her on/off button was.”
Les Ballets Jazz’s performances are true stamina tests, however. To cope, Cassone went further in her quest for fitness, coming up with a comprehensive training regimen that includes weight lifting and a gluten-free diet. Anorexia is firmly behind her, and the routine helps her as she gets older. “My back is already much stiffer and recovering takes longer, but I accept it. I want to stop dancing when I decide to.”
In the meantime, Cassone is trying on new roles for the future. She has restaged works for Millepied at the Mariinsky Ballet and Germany’s Dortmund Ballet, and she and Robitaille launched the Montréal Danse Network, which offers dance workshops. Fitness coaching is another interest: “I’ve always had a complicated relationship with the mirror, but I love anything to do with the body.”
Hers is a delicate hybrid: “I have a ballerina’s body and a contemporary movement quality.” She readily admits you’ll never put her in a tutu, but her path proves that detours and adversity don’t have to spell the end of a career. “I knew my classical technique wasn’t solid enough, so I instinctively went in a different direction,” Cassone says. “It’s what’s saved me.”
Laura Cappelle is a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine.