by Kathleen Smith

The only way to teach someone a show-stopping duet like Itzik Galili’s Mono Lisa is to break it down into bite-size chunks. And that’s just what I’m watching in the ground- floor studio of Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal downtown on Sherbrooke Street: Céline Cassone, her new partner Yosmell Calderón and a team of supporters, working phrase by phrase, step by step, inch by inch. Galili set the duet on Cassone and then-partner Mark Francis Caserta in 2015, and it’s been a much-loved fixture on BJM’s aggressive touring schedule ever since.

With the departure of Caserta at the end of last season, Cassone (coming off a summer of hip troubles) and new company member Calderón are starting over. Coincidentally, Galili is also briefly in town (the peripatetic choreographer is rumoured to live in Tel Aviv, but travels internationally from commission to commission and claims “nowhere” as home), creating an ensemble work on BJM. But he is nowhere to be seen at these charged Mono Lisa sessions. He tells me later over coffee that his absence is intentional. “You need to give space to people, and sometimes space is just distance. The piece has its own form because of them and for them, and it’s different than what was originally created — so they have to find their voice with each other.”

Céline Cassone and Mark Francis Caserta in Itzik Galili’s Mono Lisa | Photo: Alan Kohl
Céline Cassone and Mark Francis Caserta in Itzik Galili’s Mono Lisa | Photo: Alan Kohl

Mono Lisa is a fast-paced and intricate ballet for a man and a woman. Athletic, it also requires a looseness, a casual demeanour; there are several breaks in the work when the dancers watch each other in a relaxed manner or simply walk away like normal people. The combination of precise movement mechanics and blasé attitude makes it fascinating to watch and tough to perform.

There is solo material, but it’s when the dancers come together that the piece is most stunning, with acrobatic entwinements, spins and lifts. It is easy to imagine the dancers’ limbs tripping up on each other; in fact, during these early rehearsals, Cassone kicks Calderón repeatedly with her pointe shoes and there are many stumbles. They also collapse on the floor panting a few times.

“It’s impossible to do it twice in a row,” Cassone tells me post-rehearsal. She and Calderón are aiming to eventually do it once and then immediately repeat the first half. They’ll do this to test their endurance, but also to build confidence. “It’s unpredictable — there are not many roles like this — and sometimes you just have to accept that today was hard, but it will be better tomorrow.”

Louis Robitaille, artistic director of BJM (and Cassone’s life partner), has been flitting between his office, company class and the Mono Lisa rehearsal. He is calm, yet attentive to the progress being made. “It’s a very difficult duet,” he agrees. “It doesn’t look like it when you first see it on video (you tell yourself, sure, it’s difficult, but it’s just a duet). Then you start to work on it and — wow! If it’s even a hairsbreadth too much on or off, it falls apart.” Robitaille, like everyone, is a little worried about starting the process of building Mono Lisa and its all-important partnership up again from scratch.

“It’s no secret,” he says, “that it takes time to build the affinity the dancers have for each other, the trust and all that. Above all, it takes performances onstage. There is something bigger than yourself that happens there that almost never happens in the studio.”

Back in that studio, the team continues fine-tuning. François Chirpaz, the company’s new ballet master, is not yet totally familiar with Mono Lisa, so he is watching carefully, learning the minutiae of the dance. Alexander Hille, who is in the second cast and has danced it several times, has stepped up to coach Calderón. Robitaille contributes a brief note. Calderón suggests an adjustment to Cassone’s head and shoulder placement, which helps. Together they form a safety net of care; when the session concludes they all kiss and hug warmly. They will reconvene the next day — as Cassone tells me later, the only way to do this is to chip away at it daily. She will also do her own daily personal training to ready herself for upcoming performances of the eight-minute work in Quebec (and later in the season for shows in Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia). “I have to train to do it,” she says. “Cardio, the elliptical, 30 seconds on, one minute rest, 15 times, and lots of Pilates.”

She can prepare until the cows come home, but Cassone agrees with Robitaille about the importance of getting the duet onstage. She thinks it will take about 10 performances before she and Calderón are truly confident. “What I really need is to continue working like this. To be present, working on the corrections. I don’t want to go onstage with just luck. Luck will be there, of course, but we are working now to get it right.”

Mono Lisa was created for Alicia Amatriain and Jason Reilly at Stuttgart Ballet. Stuttgart artistic director Reid Anderson wanted a longer work from Galili, who has been in steadily increasing demand as a gun-for-hire since leaving the Netherlands, where he directed NND/Galili Dance in Groningen and then co-directed Dansgroep Amsterdam. At the time, Galili preferred to do a smaller piece. Since then he has set five works on the Stuttgart company. “When I started working with high tech dancers … well, it’s a little bit like working with a high tech computer … their body facilitations, their speed, the looseness in the way they inhabit their psychological state of mind … It’s really great fun.”

When I ask Galili about the ideas behind Mono Lisa, he is coy. On the surface, the work feels a bit mysterious with its percussive typewriter score and bold lighting, both of which Galili helped design, and I wondered if there was a backstory.

“I would rather tell the stories around it than talk about the work,” he says. Galili is a generous and fun interview, but his responses can be oblique, with answers to questions about his work half-buried in random memories.

“I thought about what would be a beautiful thing to have them do — what about taking them to a remote island? Then I thought the island would be like going backwards in terms of sound, so I took a typewriter and started playing with the sounds. But I didn’t want to do more than create the story that’s there in that space for the both of them.”

Cassone’s take on story is more matter of fact. “To be honest, at the beginning there was nothing,” she recalls. “We had to just do it. It was already so impressive. But from my interpretation, it’s more about a woman and a man who are teasing each other. We just play, try to top each other — it is more this way: ‘I can do better than you. But I love you anyway.’”

Robitaille, who acquired the piece to complement the company’s roster of mixed program ballets that highlight BJM’s versatility, recalls, “I wanted to get the real story about Mono Lisa — but I never got it. In my interpretation, it is crystal clear — they are a man and woman in a conventional relationship, a couple, having a competition, an argument. It’s as it is with any couple … only with extreme physical expression. But maybe Itzik has a different story …”

I never do get a full explanation from Galili, but he does share a few more haphazard snippets as we get comfortable with each other. Toward the end of our time together, I ask him again (for the umpteenth time) what the title means, and he says, “Lonely Lisa.”

“Nobody gets it usually. But there are references to many things in this work. And no one knows …” By way of example, Galili talks about the final position in the dance, in which Calderón lies on his back supporting Cassone’s entire back-arched body weight on his feet. Galili says he was inspired by a scene in the original Ghostbusters movie, in which the ghosts are taking Sigourney Weaver into their realm, sucking out her life force with chains of electricity. He also mentions Nadia Comaneci (the Romanian gymnast who scored the first perfect 10 at the 1976 Olympics). He may be pulling my leg; I am not sure.

Nor does it matter. For Galili and everyone else who is intimately involved with the work, the meaning in Mono Lisa is very literally open to interpretation. “I can tell you different stories, and you may read other stories.” Yet every person, Galili hopes, will experience their own take on this enigmatic duet.

DI SPRING 2017

Yosmell Calderón | Photo: Jeremy Coachman
Featured photo of Yosmell Calderón | Photo: Jeremy Coachman