Last year, Winnipeg's Jorden Morris was asked to choreograph a pas de deux to Leonard Cohen's soulful Dance Me to the End of Love for the nationally televised Genie Awards.
It was so well received that the Royal Winnipeg Ballet commissioned Morris to create a longer work to songs by the legendary Cohen.
The 44-year-old dancemaker, who teaches at the RWB School and created the company's hits Peter Pan and Moulin Rouge -- The Ballet, was already a fan of the 77-year-old Montreal-born poet and singer-songwriter. Years ago, he attended one of Cohen's spiritual concerts in Montreal.
Still, he embarked on an intensive research quest, downloading huge quantities of Cohen's influential music, reading biographies and getting his hands on 14 hours' worth of audio interviews with the deep-voiced singer, spanning some 40 years. He hopes to meet Cohen one day.
"He's such an amazing individual -- his ideas, his beliefs, the way he can so eloquently express anything, and put a shape and texture and colour onto it," Morris says. "If he's just talking about his hat, it sounds fabulous."
The full-scale Cohen project will ultimately be about an hour long and will likely debut in the 2013-14 season, Morris says. But a 20-minute version for seven dancers, The Doorway: Scenes from Leonard Cohen, has its world première Wednesday as part of RWB's season-ending Pure Ballet program.
The production, on until Mother's Day, also features Peter Quanz's Luminous and Mauricio Wainrot's Carmina Burana, both to recorded music.
The troupe actually has a history with Cohen. Back in the hippie era, it premiered Brian Macdonald's ballet The Shining People of Leonard Cohen. Still, don't hunt for the poet in the audience next week. He was invited, but is too busy to attend.
The Doorway consists of five relationship-themed vignettes set to four songs and a recording of Cohen reciting the poem Since You've Asked. Each vignette is preceded by a relevant audio clip of Cohen.
"What I'm trying to do is tie him to the music, and then make a picture," Morris says.
Two of the best-known songs will be performed live. The placement of the musicians is still being worked out, but Morris hopes they'll be in close proximity to the dancers.
British Columbia-born singer-songwriter Allison Crowe will play the piano and sing Hallelujah, choreographed as a female solo.
Winnipeg duo Keith and Renée will perform Bird on a Wire. The ballet also includes Sisters of Mercy as recorded by singer-songwriter Cris Williamson and The Letters sung by Cohen and Jennifer Warnes.
Morris doesn't have much experience choreographing to lyrics, but is very aware of the pitfall of matching movement too exactly to the words. It's a trap some audience members felt choreographer James Kudelka fell into with the Johnny Cash-scored ballet The Man in Black, performed here last fall by the National Ballet of Canada.
"I got a lot of comments (after the Cash ballet) saying, 'God, please don't be that literal with Leonard Cohen,'" Morris says. "It almost gets pedantic for the audience. ... You want to use Cohen's words as the canvas. The movement is the paint."
The title The Doorway, he says, reflects Cohen's almost priestly passage through the portal to the stage.
"He talks a lot about the doorway he goes through before he performs. It's something very sacred and special to him."
It might seem surprising that Dance Me to the End of Love doesn't appear in The Doorway, but it's because Morris envisions it as a number for many dancers in the hour-long version, to be titled The Chamber.
"I want it to be a huge group section for, like, six couples," he says. "I'm kind of saving that -- and things like Famous Blue Raincoat and Tower of Song."