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Essence of the Female

Ausia Jones, who also dances with Ballet Jazz Montréal, choreographed the opening work at PennLive Arts presentation of the company’s touring show, Essence. A work by Crystal Pite, who has received numerous awards for her choreography including the 2018 Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production for “Flight Pattern,” was also danced. And with Aszure Barton’s reprise of her 2005 “Les Chambres des Jacques,” last seen here in 2012, the entire program consisted of works by women choreographers.


Ballets Jazz Montréal: “Essence”


Penn Live Arts, Philadelphia, PA, February 9-10, 2024


Merilyn Jackson

Shanna Irwin and John Canfield in “Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue,” by Crystal Pite. Photograph by Sasha Onyshchenko

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BJM reminds me most of one my all-time favorite companies, São Paulo’s Grupo Corpo. Indeed, Grupo Corpo’s choreographer and founder Paulo Pederneiras (with his brother, the company’s resident choreographer Rodrigo) has made work for BJM and they are more than up to the task of his demanding choreography. Each of the three works on this program equaled them in similarity of fearless ambition, and the company’s artist’s danced with them unflaggingly with as fierce intensity, integrity and utter commitment as anything I ever saw on GC. As such, I see BJM as one of the world’s most pliant companies.

Jones’s “We Can’t Forget About What’s His Name” reminded me most of GC, possibly because of the crinkled ankle boots some of the dancers wore that resembled costumes from GC’s “O Corpo.” These had flirty ruffled sides going down the legs and sleeveless sheer tops all in black by Anne-Marie Veevaete But there any resemblance ends save for Jone’s formidable dance phrases. Claude Plante’s dynamic lighting—cones of light sprays— created an illusion of enveloping the dancers as they began what would be an evening of speed and athletic energy. Yosmell Calderon Mejias (who was phenomenal in “Dance Me” to Leonard Cohen’s songs here in 2019) walks onto the stage and is no less phenomenal as a contortionist. From deep second position plies, he shoots like a rocket into the air. Other men of the company, John Canfield, Damond Lemonte Garner, and Gustavo Barros held up to Mejias’ mark. But Tuti Cedeño’s innocent look belied her sexy solos, her perfect hesitancy in her stuttering steps across the stage set the tone for Jones’s concept of uncertainty which is the inspiration for the piece.

Astrid Dangeard and John Canfield in “We Can’t Forget About What’s His Name” by Ausia Jones. Photograph by Sasha Onyshchenko

Astrid Dangeard’s and Jone’s powderkegged leaps and lunges and tricky legwork furthered that concept in this pushme/pullyou dance about connections broken, repaired and sometimes lost. The soundscape by Jasper Gahunia, Stephen Krecklo, William Lamoureux aka Earth Boring included a male voice repeatedly telling us to relax as if he were a gynecologist. I found it more annoying than relaxing but otherwise the music drove the choreography at a fast clip through wonderful duets and group sections of undulating hips, sudden clashes and equally sudden separations. And now I get the title. We meet people fleetingly, like them or not, and then forget about them. Tantalizingly, we continue to try to reconnect. A dance for our time.

Crystal Pite’s work, originally set on the now defunct Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet a decade ago, “Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue” bridges the program. To a soundtrack of Solaris by Cliff Martinez for the Soderbergh remake of the Tarkovsky film the dancers often flow through a dreamlike atmosphere as if weightless. But with Jim French’s lighting, often only their feet were visible, forcing the eye to squint to see the upper body movement. Linda Chow’s dusky costumes furthered the difficulty of seeing the movement clearly. Even so, moments shone through. The work’s five dancers form same and opposite sex couples in various stages of flight or danger with one either coming to the other’s aid or ignoring their plight.

Andrew Mikhaiel and another male dancer duel athletically, and Jones and another woman play pattycake. but to what end, I am not convinced. Other sections do confirm Pite’s intent. Shanna Irwin follows Canfield, both bent-legged as if tiptoeing through a minefield, their hands covering their eyes so as not to see what happens. Canfield heroically follows a slow-stepping dancer as she dangles her arm behind as a lifeline. But he is blown back each time he barely reaches her, the flaps of his jacket flying upwards. Jones’ and Mikhaiel’s final duet affected some sense of safety reached, but I’d have welcomed a bar or two of Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me” as a kicker at the end. It needed bit of wit.

John Canfield in “Les Chambres des Jacques” by Aszure Barton. Photograph by Sasha Onyshchenko

Gone are the little red ribbon tied bustiers and white ruffled panties I loved so much in my first viewing of Aszure Barton’s “Les Chambres des Jacques” in 2012, by Anne-Marie Veevaete. It was originally created and performed in 2005. Much has happened to turn the world darker since then, and they are now costumed in Rémi Van Bochove’s fifty shades of brown. Yet this half-hour long piece ended the show with as much originality and freshness as on my first viewing. 

But who is Jacques? And where are his rooms? One wonders if Barton’s dance scenes erupt from personal memories veiled in blurred dreams of a past or long-gone love. They certainly are filled with the poetry of longing and the joy of belonging. A sound score ranging from Gilles Vigneault (a Canadian crooner à la Aznavour) to the Cracow Klezmer Band, and finally to Alberto Iglesias wrenching composition for the film Talk To Her.

Mejias dominated this piece’s various energies from the beginning with his bent-legged entrance, shimmying shoulders and snapping fingers. His barrel turns ignited like fireworks. But Marcel Mejia was not to be outdone, sinking into his square of light (by Daniel Ranger) with beautiful formalisms that included ronde de jambe des tournees and deep plié kicks. Dancers filled other spots, each alone as in a closed room. One of the women screams. Another comes prancing out. Playfulness and maddening emotions tear at each other. In this iteration of “Les Chambres,” I saw mirror image reflections of Ronan Koresh’s (Philadelphia-based Koresh Dance Company) Middle Eastern choreographic style of humor, pathos and narrative.  

Merilyn Jackson

Merilyn Jackson has written on dance for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1996 and writes on dance, theater, food, travel and Eastern European culture and Latin American fiction for publications including the New York Times, the Warsaw Voice, the Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times, MIT’s Technology Review, Arizona Highways, Dance Magazine, Pointe and Dance Teacher, and Broad Street Review. She also writes for tanz magazin and Ballet Review. She was awarded an NEA Critics Fellowship in 2005 to Duke University and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for her novel-in-progress, Solitary Host.



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