Cedar Lake Dance Company: American Playground


Donald Hutera

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Photo: Jane Hobson

Cedar Lake can hold its collective head high on the American dance scene as one of this still young century’s definite success stories. Founded a decade ago by the arts philanthropist Nancy Laurie, there’s far more to say about the company than simply noting the security it enjoys in such financially precarious times. Operating until recently under the artistic directorship of the flamboyantly monikered Benoit-Swan Pouffer, formerly a dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Cedar Lake has forged a reputation as home to sixteen extremely versatile, high powered dancers who give their all to a repertory with a distinctly European flavour.

The roster of past and present choreographers who’ve put their stamp on the eclectic, New York based repertory company is enviably impressive. Prominent among names that can be bandied about are Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Johan Inger, Ohad Naharin, Angelin Preljocaj and Didy Veldman. This hugely disparate handful of artists – and there are others – is a good indication of just how adventurous Cedar Lake aims to be.

‘Cedar Lake is an amazing playground for contemporary dance and art in the United States,’ says Alexandra Damiani, company ballet master for the past eight years and, at present, its interim artistic director. ‘I see it as a laboratory where choreographers have time to create and dancers have something stable that also gives them an opportunity to grow as artists.’

Last year, for its UK debut in London at Sadler’s Wells, Cedar Lake earned gratifyingly positive reviews thanks to a triple bill featuring the work of Hofesh Shechter, Alexander Ekman and Crystal Pite. ‘A moody, atmospheric, occasionally chilling sandwich that came with a light and funny filling’ is how one critic summed up the evening. To another it was ‘varied, challenging, rib tickling, emotionally introspective and physically giving…it’s no wonder this is the company everyone wants to dance for.’ And in the words of a third, ‘The abiding feeling you’re left with is one of awe at the skill on display.’

Damiani knows better than anyone just how versatile Cedar Lake’s ensemble is. Although the majority are American born, there are currently company members who hail from Brazil, France, Korea and Portugal. They come, she says, ‘in all sizes, skin colours and from different backgrounds: contemporary and competition dance, jazz, ballet, gymnastics. Some started when they were the age of five, and others not until they were 19. With them there are no rules – just raw, pure talent.’

Talent of that calibre requires big, juicy challenges. One virtually guaranteed means of supplying exactly that is to invite as wide a range of choreographers to the company, either to restage pre existing works or – even better – to make new dances from scratch and with all the resources Cedar Lake can provide. ‘We put as few limits as possible on what a choreographer wants to create for us,’ says Damiani. ‘It’s so rich, the different movement languages they speak. And of course the dancers need to be fluent in these different languages.’

As does Damiani herself. She has two sure methods of getting up to speed with the company’s repertory. One is to don tights and get in the studio and learn the dances herself. ‘I like to have the physical experience of the movement,’ she says. ‘To have that understanding is very precious.’ Another is to stick close to a given choreographer (or the assistants they might send in their stead) while a piece is being made with (or learnt by) the dancers. ‘I try to see the work through his or her eyes,’ Damiani explains, ‘and pay attention to the words and images he or she uses – they’re a key to an artistic vision. I can use those same words and images once the choreographer is gone, to help the dancers access the work more quickly.’ Damiani’s task is to keep alive what’s most important: ‘Is it the detail of the steps, or the essence of a dance?’ Ideally, perhaps, it’s both. ‘I almost step into the choreographer’s shoes, or their bodies! I have to be a chameleon.’

Crystal Pite is on the docket again for Cedar Lake’s return to Britain under the auspices of Dance Consortium. Her Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue will be joined in London – and on tour to Bradford, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Leicester – by Necessity, Again, the quirky Norwegian choreographer director Jo Strømgren’s second piece for the company, and Indigo Rose which the choreographic titan Jiří Kylián originally made for Nederlands Dans Theater 2. Pite’s dance ranks as a firm company favourite. Damiani calls it ‘a jewel…intimate, cinematographic and exquisite. It’s very strong about human relations. Many audience members come to me after the show to say it made them cry.’ Dancer Ebony Williams (who has been known to moonlight as a dancer for Beyoncé, most famously in the Single Ladies video) has found herself crying when she dances it. ‘I feel like I can be really emotional in the piece,’ she elaborates, ‘and create my own story in it, go there deeply and bring the audience with me.’

Strømgren’s work is notable for its high degree of theatricality, underscored by an emphasis on the nuances of characterisation and décor. ‘Lots of papers fly about in this one,’ says Damiani, smiling at the thought of it. In terms of its soundtrack Necessity, Again cleverly juxtaposes a lecture based on the work of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (‘Cerebral,’ remarks Damiani, ‘intellectual and a little bit pompous’) with the music of the iconic Charles Aznavour (‘Corny, and too sweet’ in Damiani’s estimation, but also irresistibly feel good). The result is in some ways physically simple but also subtle and funny.

As for Kylián, Damiani regards him as ‘the master’ and Indigo Rose (set to Bach and John Cage) as an utterly elegant showcase for the technical prowess of Cedar Lake’s dancers. ‘It challenges us because of its articulation and musicality,’ says dancer Matthew Rich. ‘There’s a lot of thought in each moment and movement. It’s not effortless, but hopefully we make it look that way.’ As, indeed, could be said of everything Cedar Lake touches.

Donald Hutera writes regularly about dance and theatre for The Times, Dance Europe, Animated and many other publications and websites.