A lively fusion of forms
When Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal was founded more than 35 years ago, the name reflected two of its most potent stylistic influences. But a recent rebranding of the company as BJM DANSE suggests that the range of the company, under the direction of Louis Robitaille since 1998, is far more expansive than originally conceived. That eclectic embrace, and the company's superb dancers, are brilliantly showcased in Aszure Barton's "Jack in a Box," given its Boston premiere Thursday night.
The Canadian-born Barton is one of today's hottest young choreographers, a Tony nominee for Broadway's "The Threepenny Opera" and one of the first resident choreographers at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. "Jack in a Box" makes it easy to see why. A kind of prequel to "Les Chambres de Jacques," which the company performed here in 2006, "Jack" marries the formal clarity and rigor of ballet with movement forms that range from African dance to contact improvisation, connecting these elements with a deep musicality and infusing the whole with an insouciant postmodern theatricality.
"Jack" is a study of group architecture and dynamics filtered through a variety of contexts. In gray skirts/pants and white polo shirts, the dancers initially recall obedient parochial school children going through their paces, their mischief barely in check. But as the music shifts from luminous Gregorian chant to jazzier, more rhythmically driven strains, the dancers' pristine, ritual-like phrases take on a decidedly cheeky, playful air. Brilliant balletic leaps and turns rub shoulders with hip swivels, shimmys, torso rolls, a little bump and grind. But without any sleazy MTV vamping. Flips, tumbles, balances, and lifts are executed with athletic rigor and sharp precision, enlivened by a fanciful gestural vocabulary.
Groupings change shape and tone. A percussive drumline evokes a military squad. Modal music suggests communities enriched by folk dance. It's thrilling to see rhythm come alive with such power, as groups amass in unison, then splinter apart in sequential layering and counterpoint.
In one section, the ensemble sits at a table, engaged in a play of hands and heads, one dancer occasionally popping up like a Jack in a Box. Tribal rhythms lead the group into some funky, almost primal connections and sensual couplings. But just as quickly, they shift, clustering together in the smiling pose of a yearbook photo. As the lights go down, they are innocent schoolchildren once again.
Mauro Bigonzetti's overly long "Rossini Cards" looks messy and self-indulgent by comparison, the Italian choreographer's movement ideas nearly swallowed up by theatrical artifice and forced humor. A kind of baroque postmodern evocation of the legendary composer's era, the work suggests the debauchery beneath the gentility. A woman writhes and thrashes before being tossed around by two men, her breasts popping out of her bodice, their hands curled like gorilla paws. A dance of slow-motion gestures and barely contained disdain set around a long, candlelit table suggests a dinner party from hell.
However, the final group dance of bad boys in berets was a rousing, crowd-pleaser that had the energy, invention, and cohesion the work lacked as a whole.