Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet: Creating a fearless art
by Lou Fancher
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, which has just marked its tenth anniversary, brings its fierce, unforgettable dancers and repertoire to Cal Performance’s Zellerbach Hall for performances on Feb 22-23.
Founded in 2003, the New York-based company was given early financial wings by the billionaire backing of Nancy Laurie, niece of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. The troupe’s fearless dancers were led, beginning in 2005, by the Parisian artistic director and former Alvin Ailey dancer, Benoit-Swan Pouffer. Modeled on European dance companies, the elite fleet enjoyed year-round salaries, health insurance, well-sprung rehearsal spaces and — oh double joy! — bold choreographers with time to explore.
Programs introduced “imported” artists; mostly Europeans or Americans whose work was better known abroad — or hardly “known” at all. It was a risky strategy: early investigations and reviews were not always fruitful or complimentary. But during Cedar Lake’s decade of dancing, the company’s athleticism and intelligence, not to mention the enormous impact of a guest stint by Israeli-born choreographer Ohad Naharin, caused dance-goers, critics and the general audience to stampede the box office, expecting and finding remarkable art and artists.
The New York Times arts writer Roslyn Sulcas labeled the company “a New York success story” in 2012, crediting Pouffer’s curatorial command and heralding their “A-list repertoire, and an accent on creation that few companies worldwide can match.”
So when Pouffer announced his resignation to pursue other opportunities in 2013, his departure marked both end and advent. Fortunately, standing in the wings, was Alexandra Damiani, the company’s ballet master and current, interim artistic director.
In an interview before Cedar Lake’s Berkeley visit, Damiani said the company is planning its future with open-mindedness and continued emphasis on dynamic, visionary choreography.
“We’re in the meat of defining the next chapter for the company,” she said, her accent revealing a connection to Pouffer beyond a shared artistic sensibility and years in a dance studio. Born and trained in France, Damiani came to the United States on an Alvin Ailey American Dance Center scholarship. After a 15-year soloist career with U.S. and Canadian contemporary ballet companies, she joined Cedar Lake.
Reflecting on the troupe’s history, Damiani said early skepticism was good for the company. “It made us clarify our voice and focus as a team. The adversity was a driving force,” she said. “Love comes from compassion and from hard things. It was a gift to us.”
A second gift arrived with Naharin, who spent three months mostly away from his Batsheva Dance Company, working with Cedar Lake. “It was not just a remount of a piece, it was a full evening of material. There was a huge leap for the dancers. I saw it, lived it, grew with it too,” Damiani said. The piece, “Decadence,” is a tribal, lashing, lovely compilation of 16 excerpts from Naharin’s body of work. Set on Cedar Lake’s dancers, the ballet brought undeniable evidence of their trademark qualities: precision, power and personality.
“Our dancers have freedom to develop their own approach. I’m interested in their uniqueness: mindsets that are different, one from each other,” Damiani said.
Arguably, the best thing that happened to ballet during the 20th century — along with the 1980s’ boom that fueled the growth of regional companies and nurtured them into pockets of brilliance —was that dancers were invited to think. Shortly thereafter, ballet choreographers joined the cerebral party. Dance questioned its heritage: why hold my foot this way? Who said pointed supersedes flexed? Why must only men lift only women? Dancers and dance makers turned arabesques into political activism and pirouettes into personal proclamations. It was, admittedly, tedious in its infancy. But in the 21st century contemporary ballet has blossomed into intricate, sophisticated reflections on society, humanity, the environment, global suffering and triumph, mortality and more.
“There is no limit: rolling on the floor, improvising, precision and technique,” Damiani said, describing the dancers she sees today. “They are so open, once there is a sense of direction or talent. They’re fearless, eager to go into new approaches.”
The Berkeley program offers three opportunities to see Cedar Lake’s vivid, varied capabilities. Jiří Kylián’s Indigo Rose (1998) will be performed, along with two Bay Area premieres: Jo Strømgren’s Necessity, Again (2012) andTen Duets on a Theme of Rescue (2007) by choreographer Crystal Pite.
Czech choreographer Kylián’s work, a silky and sometimes sly homage to youthful, amazing bodies, is set to music by Robert Ashley, François Couperin, John Cage, and J.S. Bach. Damiani said it tests their showmanship.Necessity, Again has a sensual soundtrack mashing songs by crooner Charles Aznavour with deconstructed text by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. The movement is theatrical and requires a comic actor’s sensibility and a character actor’s finesse. “The strength of the piece is in the transitions, so we spend a lot of time on those,” Damiani said.
Canadian choreographer Pite speaks to a dancer’s intelligence, designing deeply human encounters that capture the essence of what it is to love, learn, linger, and experience loss. Her ballets rely on structure, crystalline technique and an astute awareness of architectural space. Everything — the stage, the interplay between dancers, the bodies themselves — becomes a collective whole; balanced on precious, intimate, jewel-like moments. Rescue’s series of duets set to Cliff Martinez’s film score is cinematic: atmospheric and tragic without resorting to dramatic overtones.
Cedar Lake has a full schedule after their stop in Berkeley and Damiani said soon — perhaps within months — they’ll have a major announcement about the individual who will pick up the company’s “reins.” In the meantime, she will be the “neurotransmitter,” bridging the gap and keeping the company, as she said, “moving in a beautiful direction.”