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Flash Review 1, 12-9: Beat Out that Rhythm
Les Ballets Jazz in One Note

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2003 Gus Solomons jr

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NEW YORK -- Making its Joyce Theater debut (December 2-7), Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal got off to a puzzling start with five swinging cocoons in too-dim light: the first section of "Sous le rythme, je..." by Patrick Delcroix. After this irritatingly irrelevant prolog, things got, literally, less obscure. Five women in long black skirts, mounted on a high platform at the rear beat earnestly on bongo drums, wood blocks, rain sticks, and the like.

Their rhythms doggedly matched the barrage of athletic, stamina-defying, joint-punishing movement of five men in black Speedos: Paul Taylor meets Pilobolus. They snaked their bodies across the ground like break-dancers, back flipped on one hand, split their legs overhead while balanced on their hands, and barrel turned in mid-air. Then the guys sat in a circle and slapped the floor and themselves making percussion for the women's sensuous, hip-swaying line dance, aloft. Finally, all ten got together in five couples doing identical duets. Aside from the self-accompaniment gimmick, what's the point of the piece?

"Short Works: 24" by the company's resident choreographer Crystal Pite took a fresh idea -- snippets of dancing, some not even developed enough to qualify as studies -- but carried it at least a third further than its interest could sustain. Clever motifs and quirky physical textures, some of them physical gems, vanished into blackouts after less than a minute or two each, leaving us wanting more of each but fewer of them.

True, explosive solos by sinewy, quicksilver Eric J. Miles, lithe and limber Francine Liboiron, and sharp, crisp Eric Beauchesne would likely have flagged, had any of them continued longer. A twitchy little duet for Tara Dyberg and Youri de Wilde did recur -- delightfully both times. Five guys in stocking caps bounced up and down and grunted, drawing laughs; later five women in blond wigs echoed them. Dyberg and Liboiron tiptoed across the stage, whispering their counts; Robert Knowles in a bear suit lumbered into the wings from his spot of light (lighting by Pite and Daniel Ranger).

Number XXII, a passage for full company that had dancers falling in and out of line in unexpected combinations, was striking, but it came too late; we'd already been lulled into indifference by 21 blackouts without punch lines.

There oughta be a law against using Bobby McFerrin's music for dances any more. Like the now infamous Pachelbel canon, its familiarity detracts from our seeing whatever's happening. Too bad, because Shawn Hounsell has devised some interesting movement for his "Circle Songs," set to the eponymous McFerrin music. In the first part, dancers wrapped their T-shirts around their wrists and manipulated each other with them. But here, as in virtually the entire repertoire of this energetic troupe, the relentless matching of movement to musical accents and inflections robbed the piece of tension. When at the end, a woman sitting on a man's shoulders obscured her face with her T-shirt, we were left hanging.

One could have easily gotten the impression that the five choreographers of the five dances on the overstuffed program were competing with each other for cleverness of movement invention, but their expressive intentions -- other than showing off what these remarkably fluid, muscularly taut dancers can do -- remained less apparent than the company's consistently gorgeous dancing.

A short solo, "clin d'oeil," choreographed by Jason Shipley-Holmes to music by Gerard Levesque and skillfully executed by Robert Rubinger, consisted of a series of acrobatic tricks: half gymnastics, half hip-hop. It served as a preamble to the finale, Mia Michaels's "No Strings Attached." Set to a peppy original score by Albert Sterling Menendez, the dancers clearly loved doing its full-bodied dancing in the improvisational spirit of jazz.

Danielle Denichaud, Lourdes Gracia, Neelanthi Vadivel, Edgar Zendejas, Beauchesne, Rubinger, and de Wilde flew into each other's arms in non-stop quick encounters; men picked up women and tossed them into the waiting arms of others; everybody darted joyously back and forth in a well-crafted, witty stream. 'No Strings,' the only ballet that allowed the dancers -- and us -- to enjoy fully their juicy, deliciously sensuous, go-for-broke energy, is the kind of dance of which we'd like to see more from a troupe with "Jazz" in its name.

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