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Roger Durbin  |  October 06, 2015

Les Ballets Jazz de Montral's University of Akron residency culminates in concert performance

DANCECleveland and The University of Akron are strong and frequent collaborators. The two organizationswhich will receive $5 million from Knight Foundation to fund the creation of the National Center for Choreographyteamed up to bring Les Ballets Jazz de Montral to Akron, Ohio last week.

During a busy, weeklong residency at the university that culminated in a performance at the E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall on campus, company members from Les Ballets Jazz worked with dance students on ballet technique in a series of master classes. I had the chance to watch one such session for upper-level students, led by Ballet Master Cyrille de la Barre. He guided students through warm-up and stretch exercises at the barre that are much like those that the professional dancers do during company classes. He also showed them some center work that included dance phrases that were reminiscent of the full company. The inclusion of hand-played drums in place of the piano at times helped convey the sense of rhythmic movement that de la Barre was going for.

Cyrille de la Barre, ballet master of Les Ballets Jazz de Montral, instructing dance students from The University of Akron. Photo by Roger Durbin.

Aside from the academic context, the schedule included opportunities for company dancers to interact informally with students, such as during a meet-and-greet reception. Speaking with me via telephone prior to his visit, Louis Robitaille, artistic director of Les Ballets Jazz de Montral, said that he and his dancers would also meet with students over lunch, just to chat. The artistic director said he also intended to talk to students about his job as head of a company and what he looks for in a dancer.

Besides sessions organized around dance students, the company held its own classes and rehearsals for the concert performance. They are at work on something new, a duet, and full rehearsals of the piece continued while on campus.

To conclude a week with such a robust schedule, Les Ballets Jazz de Montral had to perform. On Sunday, Oct. 4, the company presented three works: "Rouge" (2014), a commissioned work done to original music by brothers Sylvain and Dominique Grand and choreographed by Rodrigo Pederneiras; "Closer" (2006) by Benjamin Millepied, a short but lovely pas de deux that was gifted to Les Ballets Jazz de Montral; and "Kosmos" (2015), a longer, 35-minute commissioned piece choreographed by Andonis Foniadakis.

Les Ballets Jazz de Montral performing "Closer" by Benjamin Millepied. Photo courtesy of DANCECleveland.

"Kosmos," Robitaille said, is a "killer," for it requires a lot of stamina from the dancers. You can view a video clip of parts of "Kosmos" here to see how much the dancers rely on big, expansive movementsan influence that Robitaille says stems from his own days as a dancer. Given the thematic hustle-and-bustle of urban existence that is at the center of the work, this is a performance that calls for speed as much as grandeur. In the vivid words of reviewer Steve Sucato writing for Cleveland's Plain Dealer newspaper, the pace is "sadistically fast." (Sucato's assessment of the overall performance was that it "elicited euphoria.")

Les Ballets Jazz de Montral has as a stated goal to "provoke emotions through contemporary dance." In response to a question about that, Robitaille commented that dance can be utterly expressive, for "dance has no language barrier." Even when a work is an abstract balletand Les Ballets Jazz de Montral has several in its repertoireit still can produce emotional reactions, he added. Mission accomplished.
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