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Scene from Essence. Photo: Sasha Onyshchenko.

Past, present, future—Ballets Jazz Montréal’s Essence at the National Arts Centre August 11–12

By Madeline Paiva on August 11, 2022

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Ballets Jazz Montréal (BJM) returns to the National Arts Centre with their triple bill Essence on August 11 and 12. The show, a compilation of three pieces by female choreographers, is a representation of the company’s past, present, and future. I spoke with Artistic Director Alexandra Damiani ahead of BJM’s performance.

Scene from Essence. Photo: Sasha Onyshchenko.

Damiani joined BJM as Artistic Director last spring, but her roots with the company extend further than her current role: “[Interestingly] I danced for the company 20 years ago—Louis Robitaille hired me as a dancer and it was one of the highlights of my career,” Damiani says. She recalled that in her first performance with the company, she “felt how palpable the company was with the audience. To really share this human—not cerebral, not elitist—high-quality dancing that was done in a way that was so accessible.”

Celebrating BJM’s 50th anniversary this year, Damiani wanted to honour and showcase the incredible diversity and talent: “There is definitely a strong desire to keep it a company focused on creation and repertoire—to have the team speak different languages of movement and really emphasize even more the beauty of the unique quality in each one of us.”

Essence is a triple bill of works by female choreographers: We Can’t Forget What’s His Name by Ausia Jones; Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue by Crystal Pite; and Les Chambres des Jacques by Aszure Barton.

“I felt really deeply about creating a program that would really highlight the dance and dancers and have an insight on what BJM is today through a lens of yesterday,” she says. “Time is not linear and that past, present, future is really dynamic.”

Reflection, thematically here, emphasizes not only the roots of BJM, but also its direction in the future. “In that reflection, for me, there’s a sense of the DNA of the company—everything is very much connected. COVID was very tough on young talent, so there’s a duty for all of us with a platform to share that platform; it’s important to invest and give a space for young voices in choreography,” says Damiani.

Scene from Essence. Photo: Sasha Onyshchenko.

We Can’t Forget What’s His Name is a new creation by company member Ausia Jones. Damiani said Ausia “is definitely the new generation—she is in her early twenties and already has so much training and an eye in composition. Already at her age, you are feeling a depth to her work.” Jones’s piece, for Damiani, “is a new view on how Ausia sees the relationship between BJM and jazz music. The music was composed by Jasper Gahunia specifically for Ausia. Even though it’s house/club it’s very jazz.” Damiani said she was “so proud of what Ausia did and it really showcases the personality and talent of the dancers.”

For Damiani, it was vital that she bring back Crystal Pite. Pite’s work was the first that Damiani performed when she joined BJM as a dancer. The Essence triple bill includes Pite’s Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue.

“I called Crystal and said I wanted to create a program that was an homage to the company. I said, ‘my relationship to the company is through you and you haven’t been back since 2003/4’. It was such a beautiful way to give it as a gift to my dancers. The beauty of her work is perfect for any contemporary dancer now,” says Damiani.

The final piece of the program is Aszure Barton’s Les Chambres des Jacques. Barton’s work was created back in 2006 and was “tailor-made for the dancers of Ballets Jazz Montreal and you feel something theatrical about it that is only BJM.” This piece encapsulates the ideas of the past and reflection.

“I feel like it is an important moment of history for BJM, a true rencontre [meeting] in making it for 2022—a reflection of what she had created in 2006,” Damiani explains. This particular version is “seen through the eyes of the new Aszure Barton and the new Ballets Jazz Montréal.” She stressed that “dance is a living art,” one that is constantly evolving, and that for Barton it was difficult to see a mirror image of a piece she had created long ago.

Scene from Essence. Photo: Sasha Onyshchenko.

The curation of programs that both meld together and contrast perfectly is an art in itself. “It made me feel happy to create a program like this,” says Damiani. “It’s very meaningful not only for me, but also for the dancers and choreographers. It’s coming from so much love for dance. The three pieces contrast so well. Ausia, the music has a bit of sense of a club and feels so edgy; Crystal is very cinematographic and so deep and accessible; and Aszure is theatrical and full of storytelling.”

When we spoke about the hesitance for some to see dance, Damiani explained: “When you go see dance, it’s an opportunity to not try to understand or make sense, to just connect with it. There is no one good way to watch dance. If it was a moment for you to doze—that was the most amazing way to watch that dance.” She finished by saying that “for me, the theatre is this cave. The room is dark, you dress up, and you go in and sit in this cave with music and lights and what happens there has the potential to transform you—it is a rite of passage, a ritual. You don’t need to share it or put it in words. It’s another modern-times ritual that is still connecting us with our ancestors and nature.”


Essence runs for two nights, August 11 and 12, in the Babs Asper Theatre at the National Arts Centre. Shows start at 7:30pm and tickets are available online beginning at $32. Tickets are also available to the Indigenous community for $15. 

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