Contemporary dance has no useful definition; maybe we could think of it as an attitude, a constantly changing venture.
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. Presented by Celebrity Series at the Citi Shubert Theater, Boston, MA. May 15 through 17.
By Marcia B. Siegel
In its 12 years of existence Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet has extended the borders of contemporary dance in America. The company was keeping its commitment to the Celebrity Series, but it will close down after performances at Brooklyn Academy the first week in June. Cedar Lake was bankrolled by a benevolent sponsor who suddenly withdrew her support this spring. Professionally organized and publicized, with well-paid professional dancers, Cedar Lake became a leader in the trendy realm of contemporary dance. Its former director, Benoit-Swan Pouffer, had embarked on bringing little-known choreographers to this country, mostly Europeans. After he left Cedar Lake two years ago, his successor, Alexandra Damiani, carried on his mission. We haven’t seen Cedar Lake in Boston but the audience at the Shubert on Sunday afternoon gave it an enthusiastic reception.
Contemporary dance has no useful definition; maybe we could think of it as an attitude, a constantly changing venture. Committed to reflecting the present rather than being identified as either ballet or modern dance, contemporary dance partakes of every kind of movement practice and requires the dancers to master all of them ably enough to do what a choreographer imagines. In the well-funded opera houses and festivals of Europe, contemporary dance has been more experimental and more lavishly produced than in this country. Dancers love it because it places extreme demands on them; audiences love it because it celebrates the body, the visual sense.
Crystal Pite, who founded the Canadian company Kidd Pivot, made the first work on Sunday’s program for Cedar Lake in 2012. Grace Engine exploited the 14 dancers’ physicality in enigmatic situations. With dramatic lighting by Jim French and no scenery, the dance began with a man striding along under some neon tubes. His steps echo as if they’re miked, but when they fall out of sync with the sound you realize they’re a recording. (Music, mainly sound effects and electronic noises, was by Owen Belton.) I thought of a deserted subway platform. Later, the sound of a train roared through the tunnel. The man seemed suspicious, then afraid. He ran though the stage, erasing the imaginary platform edge as he fled imaginary pursuers, flinging himself into falls, airplane turns, sudden off-balance stops.
This paranoid beginning was followed by a series of sketches. The man merged into a faceless crowd. Anonymous people were running in silhouette against a row of lights glaring into the audience. After a blackout, the crowd has formed into two opposing lines. We hear muffled crashes and roars. The people struggle, run, form clusters and duets. They all seem to be either locking together or straining apart. Without any obvious reason for bonding, they clamp together in tight chain gangs. Individuals rear out of the mass and are pulled back into line, screaming silently. One woman tries to pull the line somewhere. They push her down. Finally the lines move off, leaving the woman on the floor, sprung from her heels to her shoulders, her back arched, arms clutching the air.
At this point I wrote in my notes, “Deepie.” What did it all mean? Like many existentialist theater pieces, it meant whatever you made of it. The dancers were splendid anti-heroes and heroines in an unforgiving landscape of light and noise. After I’d seen the other two works on the program, I admired Pite’s piece even more.
After intermission, there was a very long dance of stage managers, who fiddled with white mats and furniture, plugged in things, stood around gabbing with each other, while the house lights were on and the audience had long since returned to its seats. Two projectors showed films of mouths speaking and hands gesturing in front of disembodied abdomens. Dancers appeared and mimicked the films. The house lights finally dimmed and the dance slid into a voice describing movement and a dancer loosely following the description. Eventually the voice slid into sounds that could have accompanied Indian classical dance. The dancer copied the rhythms of the words.
In the long verbal and physical exposition that followed, the performers imitated a variety of spoken words and syllables, including their own names. The onstage projectors screened a montage of ’50s jazz band players, and the dancers mimicked their hand movements. Eventually the dancers picked up the jazz rhythm and did a stamping, thigh-slapping phrase over and over again. Voices faded in and out talked about the meaning of rhythm, but Tuplet looked more like a cartoon for an unmade dance than a dance.
The dissertation material continued in Jo Strømgren’s Necessity, Again. This time the text was from Jacques Derrida and Charles Aznavour and it was about, I guess, the Meaning of Life. It began when people dragged in four clotheslines with pages that could have been a manuscript pinned all over them. Paper got scattered on the floor, assuring us there wouldn’t be any dancing going on. The skits that followed had little to do with paper and a lot to do with antisocial sex.
A woman lay seductively on a table. Men accepted her invitation by yanking her legs open and arranging her in ever more helpless positions on the table. She didn’t resist. Another man stood over another woman, his pelvis spasming uncontrollably. The woman crawled away. He thrust himself in front of her and continued grinding. Two men threw another woman around. By then, everyone was in their underwear.
There was more paper and more talk about the Meaning of Life. The group retrieved their clothes and gathered for what looked like a choreographed finale, lifting a woman in a paper dress like a triumphant ballerina. When the curtain came down, they were having a raucous game of jump rope with the word-laden clotheslines.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at the Boston Phoenix. She is a Contributing Editor for the Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims–The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983-1996 Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University