A fresh way to commune with Leonard Cohen

Danish troupe Granhøj Dans’s excellent Dance Me to the End ON/OFF Love breathes new life into Cohen’s songbook, combining dance, theatre and a whole lot of mannequin heads to teach lessons about love.

Dance Me to the End ON/OFF Love.

Danes are, if nothing else, principled. Take the Lego Corporation, with its motto “the best is never too good,” a standard that ensures every Lego block is compatible with every other. Those made in 1958 still give that satisfying click when joined to pieces from 2013.

In fact, Danes are so fond of principles that they seem to invent rules for the sake of complicating art. Danish director Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 Manifesto outlined 10 rules that strove to remove artifice from film. The resulting films were festival gems that put flawed humanity at their core, even without added music and artificially created light.

I fully expected to see this Danish love of principle and its marriage to seemingly arbitrary rules at the Centaur’s North American premiere of Dance Me to the End ON/OFF Love. The show’s artistic director, choreographer and chief performer Palle Granhøj is known for using what he calls the “obstruction technique.” He puts objects in the way of his dancers and turns their reconciliation between the dance and the obstacle into an art form. The dancers, so says the theory, reveal their personalities through their response. The idea has merit. After all, isn’t this ultimately what great art is? Alongside technical mastery, we want to see an individual of complexity who captivates our interest.

Sure enough, the rules came before anything else. Granhøj gave the audience instructions. “This performance is based on words, not steps. Sit. Watch. Listen. Experience.”

Okay, okay, whatever you say, Granhøj. Before I knew it, his bald and disembodied head protruded comically out of a black box as he struggled to pop a rubber band off using only facial muscles.

Sounds nutty? It is. But wonderfully so. Granhøj’s 13-person troupe and an American Apparel store’s worth of mannequin heads take the audience through a gripping internal journey about the struggle to find and keep love. Elegant and charismatic performance vignettes are built around Leonard Cohen’s lyrics and music. Elements of all the theatre arts — dance, theatre, concert, performance art, mime, recitation — weave together in a mesmerizing and warm production. From beginning to end, the performers captivate with their ability to remain individuals, yet work as a cohesive unit.

There’s no disputing that Cohen’s words are pure poetry, but don’t arrive unadulterated. They are sung, recited, written, edited, hummed and even put through an electrolarynx. Paired with movement, these lyrics blossom with enriched meanings. The possible interpretations are endless. The brain does not rest during this show. More than that, though, each vignette feels deeply personal, as if the thought process and life experience that led to a carefully constructed mixtape of Leonard Cohen songs were laid bare.

A great deal of the fun is seeing how familiar songs change when sung in different voices, particularly women. “You Have Loved Enough” has performer Anne Eisensee held fast in the arms of Granhøj as she struggles to dance and sing. “I’m Your Man” becomes an absurdist comedy as mannequin heads are pulled from a box, until at last Palle Klok surprisingly appears. A chorus of instruments and men’s voices turn “Lover Lover Lover” into a universal plea of men’s longing.

Dance Me to the End On/Off Love is exciting, challenging, funny and, above all, deeply sensitive about the human condition. Those with a taste for transcending boundaries will delight at how the rules can be creatively upheld and still be liberating. ■

Dance Me to the End ON/OFF Love plays to April 14, Centaur Theatre (453 St-François Xavier), $49.50

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