Louis Robitaille has put BJM Danse Montréal at theforefront of all that’s edgy and cool in contemporary ballet.

Athletic, versatile and physically beautiful, the dancers of BJM Danse Montréal, formerly Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, have dazzled audiences worldwide for more than 35 years. Yet there was a time when the troupe fought to be taken seriously. High-minded critics and dance purists claimed it was too ingratiatingly accessible, relying on the dancers’ easy-on-the-eye sexiness to compensate for a lack of choreographic muscle.

 

Not anymore. The dancers are still electric, but now the choreography commands equal respect. BJM Danse is an intensely creative, even experimental company, attracting a number of today’s hottest choreographers, including Crystal Pite, Aszure Barton, Mauro Bigonzetti and Rodrigo Pederneiras.

 

Much of the credit for this evolution goes to Louis Robitaille, who has served as BJM’s artistic director for the past 12 years. Once the iconic prince of French-Canadian avant-garde ballet, Robitaille has come full circle in his career: He began dancing in the school of Les Ballets Jazz. On graduation he joined Montreal’s popular Compagnie de Danse Eddy Toussaint and quickly emerged as the troupe’s idolized male star. He later joined Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and was a keen participant in company choreographic workshops, leading to Bande à Part, a troupe dedicated to fostering choreographers. He also founded the short-lived Danse-Théâtre de Montréal, again to cultivate choreographic innovation.

 

It was an apt apprenticeship for what followed: assuming leadership of BJM when it needed a fresh vision. Critic Linde Howe-Beck says Robitaille “totally retooled the company from its name on up, making it hip and smart.”

 

In its first couple of decades the company was driven by jazz music, but for Robitaille, BJM is about much more. “I’m directing a dance company,” he emphasizes. “Les Ballets Jazz made big waves in the ’70s and ’80s. I respect our heritage, the public expectation for energy, joy, personality and physicality. But this is a new era. We work now with different music and a new generation of choreographers because they are the evolution of dance.”

 

Robitaille hires dancers to match. He looks for strong classical technique and a suitable physique—harmonious proportions, good feet and elegant lines—but, because of the demands of the choreography, Robitaille says extreme versatility and creative instincts are crucial. “We need dancers with diverse training: modern, jazz, even street dance. We look for theatrical skills and for dancers who are comfortable with improvisation. The men should look like men, strong and tall, with good partnering ability.”

 

The company currently consists of six men and six women. Ideally, Robitaille says he’d like to have 16 dancers, but with a modest annual budget of about $2 million (in Canadian dollars) he has to set priorities. At present, these are to pay the dancers a decent wage and give them intersting work to perform. “We need very good artists and for that we need to be competitive to attract and keep them.”

 

BJM’s dancers, though not unionized, do have a collective agreement. They are not hierarchically ranked. Weekly pay, based on experience and seniority, ranges from 650 to 750 Canadian dollars. “It’s not the greatest,” concedes Robitaille, pointing out, however, that BJM’s season offers from 40 to 44 paid weeks a year and that living costs in Montréal are low (“It’s possible to rent a comfortable apartment for $650 a month”). The company also tours widely across North America, South America, Europe and Asia.

 

Two-thirds of the company members on the 2009–10 season roster are new—an unusually high turnover. Robitaille says some of the dancers who left were simply “not the right fit,” while others opted for a change—sometimes because they wanted to work more intensively with one of the cutting-edge choreographers BJM had commissioned. “Today’s dancers want more than ever to explore, experiment and travel. It’s the reality. They must live their dreams.”

 

At A Glance:

BJM Danse Montréal

Contract: 40 to 44 weeks

Company members: 12–14

Salary: CDN$650–$750 per week

Website: www.bjmdanse.ca

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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Lopez in Circus Polka. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB.

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Summer Study Advice
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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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