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Robert Abrams
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Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet - Symptoms of Development, Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue, Rite

by Robert Abrams
January 10, 2008
Cedar Lake
547 West 26th Street (between 10th & 11th Avenues)
New York, NY 10001
(212) 486-722

Taylor Gordon's review of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
I get a lot of invitations to review dance shows. Until they perfect human cloning, I don't have time to see everything, which is why I have to pick carefully, striking a balance between known excellent companies and companies I have never seen before. Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet is one of those known quantities. They consistently put on radical, edgy works danced by dancers who are very strong. Their stuff isn't for everyone. Some people are going to hate it, but they dance so well, from start to finish, that I think you will find that you respect them even if you would rather stick with pointe shoes and tutus. And never, ever, turn down an invitation to an opening night at Cedar Lake: on opening night, they follow up their great dance show with a lavish and nearly perfect party.

The one thing that Cedar Lake is not, is ballet. Most, if not all, of their dancers have a strong grounding in ballet training, but the works they perform are not ballet, at least in the traditional sense. Of course, pigeon holing dances into styles isn't usually the most useful use of ink. You know how it goes: if the dancers wear toe shoes, it is ballet; steel shank it is ballroom; metal plates on heel and toe it is tap; nails in heel and toe it is flamenco; no shoes it is modern. And then someone dances with the lyrical moves of classical ballet but without shoes. Is that modern or contemporary ballet? If you ask how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, the average person will answer "who cares?". We, in contrast, are likely to answer "it depends on which style of dance the angels are performing." To some extent, the categorization process promotes the fragmentation of dance audiences, which we can't afford. On the other hand, people need to know what to expect. The debate, even a not so practical debate, keeps the language both fresh and defined. Fortunately here at ExploreDance.com, we are completely obsessed with dance, so our answer is "We don't know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but thank goodness that they are dancing."

Symptoms of Development employs costumes, sound, motion and voices that all suggest an industrial machine. Jubal Battisti, Nickemil Concepcion, Jessica Lee Keller, Jason Kittelberger, Ana-Maria Lucaciu, Matthew Rich, Acacia Schachte and Ebony Williams danced choreography by Jacopo Godani to what sounded like a power drill. This is the sort of experiment that has the potential to be truly hideous, but Cedar Lake managed to make it beautiful. The lesson here? If you are going to be edgy, follow Cedar Lake's example and get the best dancers you can find. A caveat: the volume for this dance was loud but okay. Dance companies need to be careful with a work like this because a small error at the sound board could send the volume to a dangerous decibel level. I have been to a show with dangerous sound levels, and I think they might have set it that way on purpose. Here at ExploreDance.com, it is our general editorial policy to give dance companies the benefit of the doubt and refrain from outright attacks unless absolutely necessary. Except if the health of the audience is endangered. Then a critic is obligated to offer a reprimand. Again, Cedar Lake wasn't in the red zone for sound levels in this work, but it is important to remember to be careful. Also, different people have different tolerances for sound levels. A choreographer may need to turn the sound to 11 to make a point, but 11 can be different for different people. You might have them at 11 and lose them at 12, which would be a shame. This bears further audience research.

Later sections of the work sounded and looked somewhat less like a machine, although the movement style in these later sections was still consistent with the earlier sections. This variation was just as well because while dancing to a power drill can be beautiful, an audience can only take that in small doses.

Speaking of sound, the dancers sometimes danced on top of the large speakers that were set on the stage, and which were used to project dancers speaking into live, hand held mikes.

The dance featured wild, but patterned, movements punctuated by stillness. And now for one of my favorite dance review topics: mathematics. I have a hypothesis that if one could devise a measure of degree of chaos, and then sampled Symptoms of Development over time, the numbers would form a pattern. I can't be the only person who thinks that would be really cool.

Speaking of cool, there is a section of the work where one dancer is wearing what looks like an aerial harness. Another dancer grasps her by the harness and spins her around, enabling a subtle flying effect. Very cool. Someone should try adapting this method to Lindy Hop.

As I mentioned above, this work doesn't look like traditional ballet. One way in which this work is different is in the use of dancers' arms, which in ballet is called "Port De Bra". Symptoms of Development used what I would define as an October Port De Bra. The use of the arms was wild, crooked and spindly like a tree without its leaves blown in a strong wind, with overtones of Halloween. The angle of the elbows and the positioning of the fingers contributed to this effect. This style fit the work perfectly and was no less beautiful than the fluid, graceful elbows and finger positions one normally finds in ballet.

I have said that Cedar Lake's dancers are strong. What does this mean? The dancers' movements are assured at all points of the arc of each movement. The dancers are assured at any speed. Even at the end of a long work. To illustrate this assured arc, at the very end of the work, Jason Kittelberger danced a solo which included a high kick with a second kick following on the first, without changing his weight or even putting his raised foot down. This would have been impressive enough that he could do this, but it was even more impressive at the end of a long-form dance.

And that was only the end of the first dance.

Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue used a half oval of spotlights on stands that made the space on stage smaller. The style of Duets was as energetic as Symptoms of Development, and my comments above about assured arcs of movement also applied to Duets, but the style of Duets was smoother and less Octoberish. Focus on the dancers' elbows and fingers to see the difference.

Some of Duets was so smooth and sensual that I would want to learn it and put it into my West Coast Swing, but it looks more difficult than Lindy aerials. Robert Royston could probably pull it off. He has recreated Gene Kelly's Singing in the Rain choreography, which is really difficult, especially when danced with a stage covered in water. I will work on my redirect whip first.

More cool stuff: They had progressively fewer lights turned on as one duet segued into another, until there were only small spotlights focused up on the larger, darkened lights, plus a few soft lights suspended from the ceiling that for a moment made me think I was in a planetarium. Running wildly to catch up to someone who seems to be standing still.

Cedar Lake presents dance whose quality is worthy of a major company in an intimate house.

Rite is yet another dance choreographed to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. That's pretty much where the similarities to any other version end. If you are looking for something really weird, edgy and beautiful, Rite is for you. The movement style was similar to Symptoms of Development in that it used an Octoberish port de bra, but the music was fairly harmonious, if percussive. The set was defined by two large, green monoliths. The set didn't particularly foreshadow anything in the dance, but it does for this review itself. This was the sort of dance that you could interpret and argue about for the purpose of discourse as sport. Is this work purely abstract? Is it about "the polarity between male and female, expressing these natural inner conflicts among androgynous beings in a primitive landscape," as the program notes claim? Does the fact that both parts of Fazil Say's four hand score of Stravinsky's music are performed by Fazil Say imply that each person needs to reach out in all directions to bring the world together? Does the fact that the insert to the program spells this music performer's name as Fazil, but the program itself spells the name as Fasil imply that even a great dance company can make minor errors, or that this musician is as aspirational as the country in South America which similarly will encourage you to dance whether you spell their name Brazil or Brasil? If you are into discourse as sport, Rite is for you. Annoying Susan Sontag in the process would just be an accidental bonus. (I am sure Susan Sontag is a nice person, but her essay "Against Interpretation" really rubs me the wrong way.)

Everyone knows that Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet is well funded and that they make effective use of the money. If they want to boost their income further, all they need to do is make a phone call to Rick Berman and make a few small tweaks to Rite.

The lead female dancer in tonight's performance of Rite was Acacia Schachte. For some reason, the cut of her very dark hair, combined with her pale skin and the otherworldly look that was created by the thick, stylized make-up around the dancers' eyebrows made me think she might be Romulan. Plus the demeanor in the dance was sometimes fairly severe. All she needed was a set of pointy ears. Other dancers started to look a little Romulan too.

First, it should be said, so that there is no misunderstanding, that while there has been plenty of friction and conflict between the Federation and the Romulan Star Empire in the past, those who have stereotyped Romulans' appearance are just being jingoistic. Ms. Schachte is as beautiful as any holodeck star in the Federation. If she changed her hair style and walked down the street in San Francisco, no one would notice that she was Romulan.

Second, this dance was so radical that if one actually did add pointy ears to this dance, it would probably go unnoticed.

Third, the idea that Rite could be a Romulan dance is only made half in jest. The point is that context can set people's expectations. As well danced as Rite is, some people are just going to prefer a nice waltz. But, if you added pointy ears, adjusted the costumes to make them more Romulan and left everything else exactly the same, and then performed Rite in the middle of a Star Trek movie, the same people who would prefer a waltz would then think that Rite was the coolest thing since sliced bread (you have to admit that sliced bread is pretty cool), at least that subset of the audience who is also into science fiction. Plus, people spend a lot of money on science fiction, so it couldn't hurt to capture some of that for dance. Some non-dance, science fiction obsessed fans might even find an entry point wormhole into an obsession with dance.

Finally, would the government of the Romulan Star Empire support or suppress dances like Rite? Star Trek excels at getting people to think about difficult questions like this by setting stories in outlandish locales. Similarly, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet excels at getting people to think about and admire difficult dance done extremely well.

Normally, a review would have ended with the last paragraph, but this was the opening night of Cedar Lake's season. Based on what I was told, Cedar Lake had hired Events by Billy Carroll to provide the DJ and catering service, which was an excellent choice by Cedar Lake. The food and the wine were superb and abundant. The DJ was DJ Lady T. She spun a variety of lively, danceable music. I said above that Cedar Lake's parties are nearly perfect. They are nearly perfect because no one social dances. Much of the music was adaptable to Hustle, West Coast Swing (I even gave a short, two basic demo to a friend of Jennifer Muller). If at least some of the attendees social danced at these parties, the Cedar Lake parties would be perfect. I think that there is a real opportunity here to grow the dance community. An event that was advertised as a combined edgy performance dance and classic Hustle, West Coast Swing, Salsa party has the potential to introduce social dancers to a form of performance dance they would have never dreamed of seeing and perhaps liking (that would have been me around 1999), and has the potential to introduce fans of performance dance to social dance, and perhaps get them to support the dance economy by taking some dance lessons (and even if they already love Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, I guarantee that their appreciation for Cedar Lake's work will deepen after they have spent a month learning two minutes of choreography).
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet performs 'Symptoms of Development' by Jacopo Godani

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet performs "Symptoms of Development" by Jacopo Godani

Photo © & courtesy of Julieta Cervantes

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet performs 'Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue' by Crystal Pite. Dancers: Jason Kittelberger and Jubal Batisti

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet performs "Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue" by Crystal Pite.  Dancers: Jason Kittelberger and Jubal Batisti

Photo © & courtesy of Paul B. Goode

'Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue' by Crystal Pite. Dancer: Jessica Coleman Scott

"Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue" by Crystal Pite. Dancer: Jessica Coleman Scott

Photo © & courtesy of Paul B. Goode

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet performs 'Rite' by Stijn Celis

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet performs "Rite" by Stijn Celis

Photo © & courtesy of Paul B. Goode

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet performs 'Rite' by Stijn Celis.  Dancers: Acacia Schachte, Oscar Ramos (back) and Jon Bond

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet performs "Rite" by Stijn Celis.
Dancers: Acacia Schachte, Oscar Ramos (back) and Jon Bond

Photo © & courtesy of Paul B. Goode

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