Vancouver dance artist Idan Cohen practically gushes with enthusiasm as he shares his passion for the music and poetry of a deceased Canadian who shares his surname.
“I’ve always loved Leonard Cohen’s work,” Cohen tells the Straight by phone. “How could you not?”
Cohen, the founder and artistic director of Ne.Sans Opera & Dance, goes on to describe the singer-songwriter as “monumental” in the way he injected such sensitivity and wisdom into his songwriting and performances.
“The wonderful lyrics paired with brilliant music is just something you don’t get to experience every day,” Cohen says.
So it’s easy to imagine how delighted Cohen was when he was approached by bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch to collaborate on a project involving the master’s music. By that time, Okulitch had already presented an arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s songs in a concert commissioned by Pacific Opera Victoria and Vancouver Opera.
“Daniel wanted to create something a bit richer out of this and had the vision of creating choreography and staging that into a concert,” Cohen recalls.
The choreographer says that he has been an admirer of Okulitch’s work since he first saw him singing on-stage in Vancouver Opera’s Dead Man Walking in 2017. So, naturally, he agreed to collaborate.
The result will be on display next month in the world premiere of Ne.Sans Opera & Dance’s Take This Waltz, which is billed as “Celebrating the Music of Leonard Cohen”. It’s being presented as a Chutzpah! Festival special event in advance of the annual Jewish arts and cultural fest this November.
Cohen imposed one condition before proceeding with this production. Pacific Opera Victoria’s concert featured “stunningly beautiful” arrangements, he says, but quite a few of the songs were among the singer-songwriter’s least known.
“I kind of insisted to add two songs that I thought were very relevant and important for the piece,” he says. “Those were ‘Everybody Knows’ and ‘Hallelujah’.”
When Okulitch gave this the green light, Cohen was all in.
Cohen describes Take This Waltz as a duet, with Okulitch’s singing being paired with Ted Littlemore’s dance artistry. Littlemore is the first dancer that Cohen worked with when he moved to Vancouver a few years ago.
“One of the many reasons I love working with Ted is because in his background, he’s also a musician,” Cohen says. “We speak the language, and also he’s such a valuable part of my vision for Ne.Sans Opera.”
That vision, according to Cohen, is to create a new form of hybridity that showcases all the arts as equals. In this regard, Cohen says that Ne.Sans Opera & Dance is following the tradition of opera.
“Ted is such a wonderful collaborator and such a brilliant dancer and beautiful musician,” he explains. “I thought that this would add something very minimal and—at the same time—rich to the production. I wanted both performers to be equal with what they have to offer to the production and to the audience.”
Cohen reveals that later in the piece, Littlemore will join the music ensemble on-stage and play the accordion while dancing.
Nowadays, it disappoints Cohen to see the arts confined to silos. It bothers him when musicians and theatre artists focus only on their art forms rather than taking in more dance shows and when dancers neglect attending the theatre or art galleries.
“I find it’s a real pity because we’re losing so much,” he says. “And when I think of artists that inspired me, I am always thinking of the German choreographer Pina Bausch, who basically reinvented dance theatre in the late ’60s.”
Bausch was certainly an admired dance artist, but according to Cohen, she also gave tremendous thought to costumes, set design, music, and other elements, even working with actors to create profound scenes.
Cohen points out that both he and Bausch choreographed Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo et Euridice, demonstrating their shared love of opera. (In Cohen’s 2021 version in partnership with Vancouver Opera, Littlemore played the role of Orfeo.)
“She had such knowledge of classical music,” Cohen states. “And I think she’s a huge inspiration to us all.”