In recent years Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal has changed mightily; since I last saw it in Philadelphia eight years ago, the company has replaced all but one of its members, Youri de Wilde. He returned, along with many new faces and some really great legs in the cast to dance the world premiere of Wen Wei Wang's Night Box as well as Aszure Barton's Les Chambres des Jacques at the Annenberg Center's Dance Celebration series Thursday evening. And what crowd-pleasers they were.
Wang's piece opens with a cluster of dancers, backs to us, isolating torsos, arms, and necks like figures in a video game. As a foggy-night cityscape looms above them in projection, they break into club dancing. One woman is picked to be held aloft, passed from man to man. The men dance in line, holding their hands open in front of their heads. Soon the women slide (which they do in several sequences, all wearing ankle socks) into the line; they fill the men's empty hands with their heads and form a sort of conga line.
Breaking into couples, they slow-dance, the men languidly groping the women's buttocks, the women responding by placing their hands up closer to shoulders. Kevin Delaney opens the men's solos, and a crackling duet between James Gregg and Celine Cassone has her in death-dropping, face-down slides and arabesques; in one, Gregg holds her upraised leg in beautiful arched placement. In all, Night Box is a sexy, noirish dance.
Barton, a rising star in Canadian and U.S. dance with her own company, is well known to Philadelphia audiences, having been here at the Annenberg and at Swarthmore College in the past year, with her signature hit Blue Soup. Her 2006 Les Chambres features strong male solo work, little white flouncy skirts and corsets (by Anne-Marie Veevaete) for the women, and a terrific pastiche of music ranging from Vivaldi arias to the opening strains of Alberto Iglesias' film score for Talk to Her.
Brett Taylor opened his solo in a square spot with some Irish clogging. Soon the other dancers filled other spots, each alone as in a closed room. Big ronde de jambe des tournees and deep plié kicks marked some of the men's dances, which really got the best of Barton's and the audience's attention in this dance. Ultimately, I wished for a better-balanced program where one of the pieces was less episodic, more flowing.