On the Runway with Cedar Lake
All of the dancers of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet are abnormally attractive, but that’s not why they remind me of fashion models. It’s because, like models, they are blank canvases for the extravagant dances they wear. They can slip easily from something dark and slinky to something bright and voluminous, maintaining that sultry, supermodel cool. It’s very alluring, if not particularly inviting.
Over the course of four nights and spread across three programs, Cedar Lake showcased a collection of five works at BAM. On Wednesday and Friday, the company brought back Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s evening-length Orbo Novo (“New World”), which it premiered in 2009. A chunk of text by neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, in which she describes the stroke she suffered in poetic detail, occupies the first half of the work.
Initially, two dancers sit at the lip of the stage explaining the difference between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. More dancers take it from there, relaying Bolte Taylor’s minute-by-minute musings as her brain shut down. The text is taken verbatim from her TED Talk, complete with some of her hand gestures, and yet she is not credited in the program—which is a shame and a sham.
The weight of Bolte Taylor’s words disproportionately anchors our understanding of Orbo Novo, which would otherwise be an intriguingly dark but abstract place with no connection to the real world. It’s as if Cherkaoui lets Bolte Taylor infuse the work with concrete meaning so that his choreography doesn’t have to, and instead remains its lush, usual self.
Furthermore, the non-stop silkiness and virtuosity of Cherkaoui’s movement undermines the tension between the body and the mind that Bolte Taylor eloquently unpacks. Despite creating some powerful images with moveable lattice walls that alternately frame, suffocate, or imprison the dancers in a cage, Cherkaoui counters Bolte Taylor’s descriptions of physical loss with his extreme physical prowess.
Both choreographer and company seem too interested in being flawless to convey the true ugliness of a stroke. In other words, they refuse to lose control of their bodies the way Bolte Taylor lost control of hers.
On Thursday and Saturday nights, Cedar Lake presented a mixed-bill program consisting of Alexander Ekman’s Tuplet and Jo Strømgren’s Necessity, Again on both nights, and alternating the third slot between Hofesh Shechter’s Violet Kid (which I didn’t see) and Crystal Pite’s Grace Engine.
Necessity, Again lives in a world of words: laundry lines strung with pieces of paper crisscross the stage and pages are frequently tossed into the air to create literary snow. The dancers, complete with sullen scowls, are dressed like they’re working in a 1950s newsroom. The sound score alternates between peppy French tunes—making the dancers smile and move beautifully—and the mumblings of 20th-century French philosopher Jacques Derrida (appropriately credited).
Ultimately, Strømgren leaves the stage in delicious chaos, but the work has the detached quality of watching a snowstorm from inside rather than being caught in the flurry itself.
Ekman’s contribution, on the other hand, allows Cedar Lake to show off its quirky side, letting the company reveal a bit more personality and a welcome sense of humor. Dancers are even able to introduce themselves, thanks to a sequence in which they each respond physically to the recorded repetition their names, (Billy Bell, in particular, emerges with considerable charm). In Tuplet, one gets the sense that the dancers are wearing something closer to their own skin.
Pite’s Grace Engine, which opened the evening, perhaps best exemplifies Cedar Lake’s ability to look great while conveying very little. The lighting—shifting between cold, overhead fluorescents and blinding backlights—is effectively ominous, and the music is skillfully dramatic. Pite’s movement, which includes lots of running, sliding, paranoid looks, and groups facing off against each other in stylized combat, makes us feel like we’re caught on a battlefield or on the run—perhaps from the C.I.A., since all the women are dressed like Carrie Mathison in Homeland.
It feels threatening, but we don’t know who is being threatened or why, just as we don’t understand all that paper in Strømgren’s work, or can’t quite grasp how Cherkaoui is adding to Bolte Taylor’s insights. Though visually satisfying, these dances feel as impersonal as frocks floating down a catwalk: you never really get a sense of the humans wearing them.
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet 10th Anniversary Celebration was performed on June 11 – June 13 at BAM. Program A: Orbo Novo by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Program B: Violet Kid by Hofesh Shechter; Tuplet by Alexander Ekman; Necessity, again by Jo Strømgren. Program C: Grace Engine by Crystal Pite; Tuplet by Alexander Ekman; Necessity, again by Jo Strømgren.