REVIEW: Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet at the Joyce
Cedar Lake Contemporary Dance held court with a captive, hometown audience last week, like an impossibly hip and worldly friend that fascinates with tales from abroad.
For the past year and a half, Cedar Lake has been performing everywhere but the Big Apple, taking up with Europe’s presenters as often as its trendsetting choreographers, both established and emerging. In the first phase of the two-part program currently running at The Joyce, the company introduced New York to two recent works of foreign birth — Hofesh Schechter’s “Violet Kid” and Crystal Pite’s “Grace Engine” — and reprised “Annonciation,” a 1995 work by Angelin Preljocaj.
Tense, convulsive and apocalyptic in feel, “Violet Kid” and “Grace Engine” — both created in the last year — are clearly works of an uncertain present. Boundaries blur between group and individual, victim and aggressor, order and chaos. Gender is largely irrelevant, as reflected in both choreography and costuming (street clothes in the Schechter, drab suits in the Pite, stockinged feet in both). And while “Violet Kid” resembles an Occupy Wall Street protest and “Grace Engine,” a corporate prison, both resound equally with confusion and despair.
From an artistic perspective, however, both pieces paint a promising picture — of the company itself, and of contemporary dance in general.
Cedar Lake’s 16 dancers are all classically trained, and it shows. Lithe and nimble, all have finely tuned instruments that harmonize well on stage. That’s hardly to say they’re “cookie-cutter,” though: of varying heights, body types and distinctive personalities, the company has a clear hunger to dance that authenticates the verve with which they attack an impressive range of styles.
This artistic integrity lends to the overall coherence of both the Schechter and the Pite, both of which create comprehensive universes of set, sound, lighting and costume, without sacrificing the primacy of movement.
“Violet Kid” pays clear tribute to Schechter’s years in Batsheva Dance Company, channeling Ohad Naharin’s penchant for alternating passages of spastic, visceral movement with sharply ironic gesture and crystalline formations. It’s an abstract picture Schechter paints, but one that is clearly relevant to the choreographer’s aim of portraying “man’s struggle for harmony within a complex and sometimes horrifying universe.”
The score, which Schechter composed himself, overlays the low, minor sounds of a live string trio with recorded spoken word and percussive, primitive music — all played at a very high volume. Ominous and cinematically immersive, the effect is well suited to the choreography, which in turn is thoughtfully interwoven with the music.
The piece begins with the dancers in a straight, confrontational line as a nervous voice notes that people decide within 15 seconds whether they like something or not. I was immediately riveted, but about 20 minutes in, I was satisfied.
In that time, the choreographer made his point about harmony and discord by taming chaotic bursts of energy with eloquently phrased resolutions. The final 10 minutes, however, felt like a term paper that tries to cram in too many ideas at the end: a battle of the sexes unfolds, which seems out of place in an otherwise gender-neutral piece — and furthermore unnecessary to prove a point that had already been made simply with movement and structure.
“Grace Engine” also feels about 10 minutes too long, but for a different reason: rather than changing the subject at the end, as Schechter does, Pite belabors the point. The placement of this piece at the end of the long program, coupled with its dark and gloomy feel, made the point feel all the more laborious.
Still, “Grace Engine,” like “Violet Kid,” is a coherent and thoughtful work with a distinctly cinematic quality. The electronic score includes the sound of footsteps clopping down a tile corridor, setting a cold and paranoid mood that is made all the chillier by the tenebrous light emanating from a single fluorescent rod.
Like Schechter, Pite alternates between order and chaos: carefully composed tableaus and formations are systematically shattered in frenetic bursts. Also paying tribute to her mentor, William Forsythe, Pite has the dancers open their mouths in frequent silent screams.
Overall, “Grace Engine” is less memorable than “Violet Kid,” but both imprint the memory less with choreography than with a feeling of being on edge — a feeling that strikes a familiar, contemporary chord at a time marked by uncertainty.
Standing in stark contrast to these works, “Annonciation” tells a more literal tale in a way that clearly belongs to another era. Premiered by Paris Opera Ballet in 1995, the Preljocaj duet for two women is a commentary on the conception of Christ, and more broadly on conception as a metaphor for creative possibility.
In an allusion to historic representations of the event, “Annonciation” sets Mary (Harumi Terayama) within walls of a garden representing her virginity, but Preljocaj interprets them as walls of her “inner space.” So when the fearsome angel Gabriel (Acacia Schachte) enters and appears to impregnate her by moving a hand pointed toward heaven to the top of Mary’s womb, we are offered a glimpse into how the Holy Virgin might have felt upon receiving the news.
Dance is an effective medium for representing such a reaction, for while visual artists have portrayed emotions ranging from serenity to ecstasy to fear and even rebellion, “all of the above” seems a more likely scenario.
The story is timeless and Preljocaj’s interpretation of it nuanced, but the modern-dance language in which he tells it (part Cunningham, part Graham) feels dated, and some gestures (the angel’s thumb planted in the sleeping Mary’s mouth, for example) are just plain weird.
Still, the dancers’ skillful execution of the choreography creates for some powerful moments, especially when they are moving in perfect unison. In several synchronized passages, Mary appears to be channeling the herald’s strength, while Gabriel — not insignificantly cast as a woman — appears at times to be feeling Mary’s confusion.
Many aspects of this older work contrast sharply with the other two in the program, but perhaps one of the most telling is how it ends: alone on stage, Mary passes her hands over her face and extends her arms behind her in open acceptance of her destiny. Although the story behind this piece is more accessible and familiar, the objectless tension of the other two seems more relevant to today.