Sunday, September 30, 2012

Cedar Lake at DanceHouse

The fifth season of DanceHouse was launched this weekend, with New York's Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet presenting a mixed program of three works by Hofesh Schechter, Alexander Ekman, and Vancouver's very own Crystal Pite. When Cedar Lake was founded in 2003 by WalMart heiress Nancy Laurie, the chatter among the culturati was that this was a vanity project, sheer dilettantism. But under the direction of Benoit-Swan Pouffer, the company has grown into a respected corps of 16 exceptionally talented dancers, and has commissioned new work from some of ballet and contemporary dance's top choreographers.

Last night's program began with Schecter's Violet Kid, an almost full-company piece that Richard read as a deconstructed Rite of Spring. And, it's true, in one of the tableaux to emerge amid the mix of voice-over and blackouts during the opening sequence, we do glimpse one man on his knees with another holding his fingers in the shape of a gun at the back of his head, all while the other dancers look on. There was no Bausch-like earth on the floor, but we did get similar massings of bodies, advances and retreats, abrupt changes of direction, the contrast of squares and circles and lines--including an obligatory horizontal self-reference to the corps de ballet as a leitmotif. As Pouffer noted in his pre-show talk, Schechter is a master in his use of stage space, and it was a wonder to watch all 14 dancers come together in different mosh pit-like formations as the anthemic music (composed by Schechter) surged, only to break apart and disperse as first one and then another dancer dares to break free from the group.

Next up was Swedish choreographer Ekman's Tuplet, a witty essay on rhythm for six dancers that features spoken word voice-over by the dancers (letting us put names to bodies) and digital projections. The piece begins with the dancers entering, one by one, and taking up positions downstage on individual white squares, beating time not just with their bodies, but with their breath. There then follows a solo by the amazing Jonathan Bond, his body outlined against the backlit upstage screens as he glides and twists and writhes in response to Mikael Karlsson's electronic score. Back on their white squares, the dancers then show us a bit of their individual rhythmic styles (this is where the voice-overs come in) before Joaquim de Santana and Matthew Rich pair off in a duet that explores various dimensions of shared rhythm. All of this culminates in an extended sequence of syncopation, in which the dancers create their own percussive beats by slapping their hands in unison on their bodies.

The evening concluded with Pite's Grace Engine, which for me was a bit of a disappointment. Described by Pouffer as film noirish in style and sensibility, the full company piece once again sees Pite playing with the limits of narrative in dance, borrowing from notions of cinematic time and featuring an innovative lighting design by Jim French to evoke montage- and flashback- and dissolve-like effects. Moodily evocative and especially compelling in the slow-motion group sequences, where Pite's trademark head-to-foot bodily chains were used to great effect, the piece unravelled for me in its duets, especially the concluding one. Though it showcased former Ballet BC star Acacia Schachte's graceful talents, it ended rather abruptly, and I found myself struggling to assimilate it within Pite's larger conception for the piece.

That said, Pouffer's curation of this program reveals his sensitivity to stylistic contrasts and, above all, what pieces best highlight the amazingly athletic movement of his magnificent dancers.


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