Cedar Lake Dance Review Essay

We modern dancers can be very snarky when it comes to a company like Cedar Lake. Bred seemingly for competition babies and “So You Think You Can Dance” stars, this company is known as much for its flashy repertory as it is for the personalities and idiosyncrasies of its dancers. But Cedar Lake’s show at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House was more than whipped cream: the dancers proved themselves nuanced artists with a surprising capacity for humor, of all things. Saturday night’s program - Program C -included pieces by Crystal Pite (associate choreographer for the company), Alexander Ekman and Jo Strømgren.

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 Pite’s Grace Engine (2012) was, according to press materials, a continued “exploration of the familiar storylines that connect mankind” (catch-all language that always causes me to shudder).  Its train station setting and score did little to elevate this piece out of the typical full-throttle choreographic Pite canon.  Moments of exaggerated slow motion grew tiresome and predictable, as did the dancers’ silent Edvard Munch-sequence screams.  A male quartet near the middle of the piece was perhaps the best example of Ms. Pite’s stop-motion versus lyrical vocabulary, but little of the work felt designed to speak of the human condition. A scene in which the company, now clad in flesh-coloured tank tops, faced upstage and marched rhythmically with sharply descending shoulders was singular in its authenticity.  

Mr. Ekman’s Tuplet, on the other hand, was a wonderfully orchestrated and surprisingly funny meditation on rhythm and impulse for six dancers. Billy Bell’s opening solo, in silhouette upstage, consisted of his following the voice of a male narrator, at turns commanding and mildly sadistic, with accompanying choreographic tasks at rapid speed. Near the piece’s middle, the six dancers stood downstage on individual squares of white marley, each in a spotlight pool. As the name of each was recited, he or she would adopt a pose or short movement to match the changing narrator voices. Mr. Bell’s frantic and surprised knee-jerk was giggle-inducing in its swift repetition. 

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The final work, Necessity Again, required a somewhat elaborate set of table, chairs and clothes lines full of hanging paper. Spoken text of Jacques Derrida on the evil of necessity, interspersed with the French music of Charles Aznavour, felt unwelcomingly disconcerting, as if an essential piece of the puzzle had been accidentally omitted. Matthew Rich’s involuntary pelvic thrusts seemed symptomatic of an overarching malady that may or may not have infected the rest of the cast - a general lusting and unrequited pursuit of physical pleasure. When these moments of just-beneath-the-surface sexual longing were cut with snappy vignettes of near social dancing, the result was confusion. It was as if Necessity Again had several themes, and each was competing unfairly for our attention. 

Cedar Lake: Necessity Again
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I left the theater feeling pleased with the extraordinary talent of the dancers, but somewhat underwhelmed by the choreographic pool. These dancers had proved themselves worthy of nuanced work, with text and humor, but their facility was muddled by occasionally bland and confusing choreography.

A review of the dance company’s tax filings showed that for the year ending in July 2013, Ms. Laurie and a foundation she ran provided more than three-quarters of Cedar Lake’s $5.9 million in revenue. Tickets and touring brought in only around 7.6 percent of the company’s revenues — about half of what it made by renting out its West 26th Street home for special events.

There were indications that the company had considered trying to broaden its donor base. As recently as October, Cedar Lake had advertised for a manager for external affairs whose duties were to have included developing “multiplatform sponsorship proposals for corporate partners, foundations, government, and individuals.” The position was never filled.

Katharine DeShaw, the president of Philanthropology, a philanthropic consulting firm, said that while some nonprofit organizations are created by single donors willing to endow their budgets in perpetuity, many of the strongest are created by single donors who then get like-minded supporters to join in the effort.

“I guess the big message here is that whoever that founding donor is, unless they’re willing to put enormous endowments behind their vision, their organizations won’t survive if they don’t invite other people in, and I would argue early in the game,” Ms. DeShaw said.

When Ms. Laurie decided to start the company more than a decade ago, she offered dancers an almost unheard-of 52-week contract (even many top ballet companies do not pay their dancers year-round), along with benefits and vacation pay. But the company also raised eyebrows with a system of fining dancers for lateness, changing choreography or missing entrances.

Even the company’s debut was unusual. In 2004, Cedar Lake filed a lawsuit against another contemporary ballet company, Complexions, charging that Ms. Laurie had donated $82,500 to Complexions with the understanding that Cedar Lake could make its dance debut at a Complexions performance — only to have Cedar Lake dropped from the program. It is unclear how the lawsuit was resolved; Ms. Laurie’s spokeswoman declined to comment on it, and officials at Complexions did not respond to an email and a phone message seeking comment.

The company was initially viewed suspiciously as a rich woman’s whim and got decidedly mixed reviews.

But it developed a following in New York and beyond, as it toured extensively, and its studio and dancers were featured in the 2011 film “The Adjustment Bureau,” starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. In 2012, Roslyn Sulcas wrote in The New York Times that it had “become a New York success story, possibly the country’s most innovative contemporary ballet troupe with an A-list repertoire, and an accent on creation that few companies worldwide can match.”

But there was internal upheaval in recent years as well. The artistic director who helped establish the company, Benoit-Swan Pouffer, a French-born former member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, resigned in 2013. The company’s executive director died, and a successor left after a brief tenure. Several company dancers and officials, still employed as they prepare for their final performances in Boston in May and Brooklyn in June, declined to comment on the closing of Cedar Lake.

The story of Cedar Lake reminded Ms. DeShaw, the consultant, of another New York dance company: the Harkness Ballet. The Harkness Ballet was created in 1964 by Rebekah West Harkness, a philanthropist who gave millions to dance and to medicine, and who also built a theater for dance on 62nd Street and Broadway. It dissolved after a somewhat rocky decade when Ms. Harkness said she had sustained stock market losses and could no longer support it alone.

The Harkness Theater was demolished. Ms. Nathan, the spokeswoman for Ms. Laurie, said that Cedar Lake’s home on West 26th Street, which is owned by the Laurie family, would continue to be rented out for private events.

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