Disconnected but occasionally dazzling.

By: Feb. 09, 2023
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Review: DANCE ME - MUSIC BY LEONARD COHEN, Sadler's Wells That Leonard Cohen, one of the greatest modern troubadours, inspired such a disconnected dance show is possibly a testament to just how elusive his songs are.

This is, after all, a man who could break your heart with "Suzanne", "Bird On A Wire" and "So Long, Marianne", remind you of how terrible humanity can get in "The Partisan" then warn you of bleak futures through "Everyone Knows", "Who By Fire?" and "First We Take Manhattan".

Or perhaps he could reminisce about the time he hooked up with Sixties superstar Janis Joplin in "Chelsea Hotel #2" (including the classic line "you told me again you preferred handsome men/but for me you would make an exception") then lift your spirit with "Hallelujah" before laughing you into bed with "Jazz Police" or "Tower Of Song". As long as you can put up with his nasal and narrow Canadian voice that only a mother could truly love, Cohen was one of the most complete songwriters around until his death at the age of 82 in 2016.

The man himself was a late bloomer, only being persuaded to set his poems and prose to music at the tender age of 33. And it was only in the last year of his life that he agreed that those songs from a career spanning half a century should be interpreted by his hometown dance troupe of Ballet Jazz Montreal. Their resulting show Dance Me debuted in 2017 and is now making its UK debut.

The choreography from Andonis Foniadakis, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Ihsan Rustem often dazzles and teases with the large crew being deployed judiciously to show off small group pieces or exquisite two-handers, sometimes within a single song; the pas de deux to "Suzanne" is especially divine. The dance becomes increasingly generic over the course of the 80-minute runtime with only a few of the fifteen or so songs inspiring genuinely different -and, importantly, relevant - dance routines.

The staging here does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to connecting to the Cohen mythos. As he wrote in "Anthem", "there is a crack in everything...that's how the light gets in" and here the small but direct illumination piercing the ominously dark stage especially does a truly epic job of setting the tone. Pointed beams appearing from the wings highlight individual hands and legs while the well-lit falling snow during the novelistic "Famous Blue Raincoat" brings home that song's wintery setting and somber tone.

If this production had existed in a world without dance shows like Kate Prince's Message In A Bottle or wasn't using such a rich source of material, the lack of direct correlation between the movements and the music would be less of an issue. Prince, though, showed how, even when armed only with tunes as insipid as Sting's solo material (as well as his more glorious work with The Police), a vivid and timeless story can be brought to foot-stomping life.

At its best, Dance Me is a decent display of movement let down by its variety but lifted by its soundtrack and excellent lighting design. Being able to enjoy Cohen's music played at this volume and in a central London venue is a rare treat nowadays. There may be a great interpretation out there of the maestro's work through dance, opera, puppetry or another art form, but this isn't it.

Dance Me - Music By Leonard Cohen continues at Sadler's Wells until 14 February

Photo credit: Rolando Paolo Guerzoni

[This show doesn't include "Chelsea Hotel #2" but, for those hankering for some Janis Joplin music, the nearby Red Lion is putting on Janis Joplin's Summer of Love from this month.]


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