MONTREAL — Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal (BJM), an acclaimed 42-year-old company, is touring Israel this week, underscoring the growing cultural ties between Quebec and the Jewish state.
Just prior to its departure, artistic director Louis Robitaille said that it was with “immense joy” that the troupe was returning to Israel, where it toured in June 2011 for the first time in more than a generation.
That experience had been “coup de foudre” (love at first sight) for the young dancers because of “the magnificent hospitality, not to mention the incredible climate,” Robitaille said at a Jan. 29 press conference held in the majestic atrium of the historic Edifice Gaston-Miron, BJM’s headquarters.
BJM director general Jay Rankin said, “Quebecers, like Israelis, are a people who embrace the arts, above all, dance.”
Israel’s consul general in Montreal, Joel Lion, said this tour reinforces the friendship that has existed between Canada and Israel for 65 years.
Between the lines, the BJM’s encore Israeli tour in less than three years is being seen as defying the boycott of Israel that certain members of the province’s artistic community have called for in recent years.
BJM is performing at the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv from Feb. 2 to 5, at the Jerusalem Theatre on Feb. 6, and at the Haifa Auditorium on Feb. 8. An entourage of 18 is there, including 13 dancers.
In 2011, the itinerary included shorter runs in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Be’er Sheva.
The current tour is supported by Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec – whose touring director, Hélène Boutet, was on hand to wish the troupe well – along with the Canada Council for the Arts and the Quebec Ministry of International Relations, with contributions from the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal, the Azrieli Foundation, the Henry and Berenice Kaufmann Foundation, and the Irving Ludmer Family Foundation.
The program includes three dances from BJM’s newer repertoire, including Harry, a narrative work created for the company at Robitaille’s invitation by American-Israeli choreographer Barak Marshall in 2012.
At the press conference, dancers performed three extracts from this high-energy work, which incorporates a dozen different types of music by singers as diverse as Maria Callas and Wayne Newton.
“It was a real challenge for the artists, as Barak asked them to play characters and express themselves not only in dance, but also with sounds and dialogue,” Robitaille said.
Told through the title character’s inner and external challenges, including war, Harry, Robitaille continued, is “primarily about human conflicts: struggles with oneself, those between men and women, and social and international conflicts.
“Although the subject matter is serious, Barak manages to handle it with humour, and in dance it’s quite a feat to make the audience laugh.”
Marshall has said of BJM: “It’s one of the tops in the world, with a wide and varied repertoire… I was pretty overwhelmed by the incredible diversity and depth of the dancers.”
Geneviève Salbaing, now 92, the Parisian-born dancer who was one of BJM’s co-founders, with Eddy Toussaint and the late Eva von Gencsy, was also present. She remarked that this exuberant, athletic work is reminiscent of the early spirit of the company.
The other dances being presented in Israel are Closer by the French Benjamin Millepied, who choreographed the movie Black Swan, a semi-classical piece featuring music by Philip Glass, and the jazzy Night Box by Vancouver-based Wen Wei Wang.
The BJM’s return was greeted enthusiastically by the Jerusalem Post, which reported that its 2011 tour had “thrilled” audiences.
BJM presents an average of 60 performances a year abroad in Europe, North and South America and Asia. Its first tour to Israel was more than 25 years ago and comprised appearances at kibbutzim, recalled technical director Daniel Granger.
“Israel is such a young country, everybody is full of life, especially in Tel Aviv,” said Granger, who was looking forward to going back.