While theatre stages groan under the weight of juke-box musicals and tribute acts, Danish company Granhøj Dans offer a more challenging, and ultimately quite brilliant, take on the life and work of Montreal’s very own godfather of soulful introspection, Leonard Cohen. That Dance Me to the End On/Off Love is so entertaining, sometimes mordantly so, is quite a surprise.
That title, for instance, as well as the regulation black outfits (and occasional nakedness) of the thirteen performers, seem to promise an evening of Euro-gloom. So does lead choreographer-performer Palle Granhøj’s gnomic introductory remarks about the Word being his whilst the Words are by Leonard Cohen. Soon, however, he’s playfully pinging a rubber band off his bald head by the aid of strenuous facial contortions, and the audience immediately stops shuffling uneasily and responds with a warmly appreciative, and relieved, wave of laughter.
What follows is a mesmerising celebration, meditation, interpretation, distillation – whatever you want to call it – of Cohen’s monumental fifty-year ouvre, presented in a variety of styles: from flamenco to burlesquey blues, from spoken to written, from being croaked by the aid of a voicebox simulator to being bellowed by a singer immersed in his ipod. Visually, it’s even more startling, with Per Victor’s richly chiaroscuro design making use of boxes, curtains, projected images and, most importantly, an accumulation of mannikin-like reproductions of Granhøj’s head.
Sometimes, these pale, lightweight pates contribute irresistibly to morbidly comic routines. Sometimes, they come across as something more sinister, like impassively watchful mementos mori (the show was partly conceived as a reflection on the death of a much-loved fellow dancer).
Central to Granhøj choreographic style is what he calls the Obstruction Technique, which basically means getting in the way of where he and his fellow dancers want to get to. This provides some astonishing moments where, appropriately for Cohen’s tortured love songs, desperate yearning meets immovable force, such as when Granhøj repeatedly ensnares a passionately singing female dancer as she longs to take wing. Not surprisingly, the words which close the show – and sum up Granhøj method perfectly – are from Like a Bird on a Wire: “I have tried, in my way, to be free.”
Everybody will have their favorite moment. For some it might be the incredible contortionist “dance” of a naked performer trapped in a tiny wooden box. Or the cheerfully sadistic duet performed by a couple of grinning Sisters of Mercy. For me, it was Palle Klok’s disembodied head (surrounded, of course, by Granhøj heads) raunching its way through “I’m Your Man” while his fellow performers used the swoosh of sticks to provide some jaw-dropping percussion.
After a couple of joyous and richly deserved encores, Granhøj offers the mischievous but no less sincere wish that Cohen himself will turn up to catch the show. To which one can only say: go for it, Leonard, you definitely won’t be disappointed.
This review first appeared in Rover Arts Montreal