MONTREAL—On March 6, when Montreal dancer Susan Paulson will take the stage to perform a piece choreographed to Leonard Cohen’s song “Famous Blue Raincoat,” she’ll have to do it without the music.
That’s because last week a Montreal company, Ballets Jazz de Montreal, announced it had struck a five-year deal giving it exclusive rights to use Cohen’s repertoire in dance shows.
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The news shocked Margie Gillis, who choreographed and originally performed the piece Paulson was set to present in March as part of the “Legacy Project,” an homage to Gillis’ four-decade contribution to modern dance.
“My first reaction was ‘this can’t be true, this doesn’t make sense,’” Gillis told The Canadian Press in a phone interview.
After debating “for about a minute” about whether remove that segment from the show, Gillis asked Paulson to perform the piece in silence.
The 63-year veteran dancer says the decision wasn’t a protest against the other dance company, but rather an homage to Cohen, who died in November at the age of 82.
Gillis made slight changes to the choreography to make sure the piece’s themes of loss and forgiveness shine through in the dancer’s movements.
She’s also changed the title from “Blue” to “The presence of absence” to show that both the song and the singer himself can still inspire even in their absence.
“As (Cohen) said, ‘there’s a crack in everything, that’s how where the light gets in,’” Gillis said, quoting one of the singer’s lyrics. “And that’s what we’re doing here.”
Gillis is not the only dancer to use Cohen’s music in recent years. Several others, including Canadians Catherine Gaudet and Guillaume Cote, have used his work in recent years, while Les Grands Ballets Canadiens have announced a performance honouring the singer in 2018.
Les Grands Ballets did not immediately respond when asked if their programming would be affected by the moratorium on Cohen’s songs.
Last Tuesday, Ballets Jazz de Montreal said its worldwide exclusive dance and circus art rights include Cohen’s name and image as well as his visual, musical, and literary works.
The company plans to debut a Cohen-inspired show in December that “will be performed through a series of acts, evoking the cycles of life, the colours of the seasons and nature’s true elements,” according to a news release.
Getting exclusive rights is an increasingly common way for dance companies to market their products in a competitive world, according to Fabienne Cabado, the executive director of a group that represents dancers in Quebec.
“Competition is fiercer and fiercer, and artists have to find creative ways to stand out,” she said in a phone interview.
But it can be hard on other artists who may be forced to revise or even cancel planned shows—something Cabado says few can afford.
She also believes the practice raises wider philosophical questions on the commercialization of art and its role in society.
“Can we in one swoop, appropriate the work of one artist?” she said. “It limits possibilities for creators, and for the public who won’t get access to works created in the echo of other artists.”
Gillis says she understands the reality of exclusive rights, and will be in the audience for Ballet Jazz’s show come December.
“It will be a bit bittersweet but (I’m) also thrilled that somebody is creating movement to this brilliant poetry,” she said.
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