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Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet

'Violet Kid', 'Tuplet', 'Grace Engine'

by David Mead

October 11, 2012 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK

It has been said, with some justification, that America doesn’t really ‘do’ contemporary dance, and I mean ‘contemporary’ dance, not American modern dance, which is something different altogether. After the London debut of New York-based Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, that’s a view that may just have to be adjusted, although it has to be stressed that the company’s choreographic focus is very much on Europe and Canada. And don’t be confused by the word ‘ballet’ in the company’s name. This is most definitely a contemporary dance company.

All of the three works on show were well danced. The dancers all showed great strength and clarity of intent. Cedar Lake is not what most people would call a ballet company and certainly not a classical one, but although the dance was very contemporary in nature, what one might call conventional technique peeked through occasionally. Beneath everything there is very clearly some excellent training.

Canadian Crystal Pite’s own company proved quite a hit when they came to London last year, and her “Grace Engine” emphasised further that she is a choreographer to watch. It was easily the most gripping of the works. The atmosphere is one of a film noir thriller. Pite actually makes reference to the body as a cinematic device in her programme note. There is a sense of being underground, maybe in a deserted subway station. For much of the piece the lighting comes almost exclusively from low slung fluorescent tubes. The score includes amplified and echoing footsteps, and the sounds of a train and machinery. Shafts of light pick out dancers from the surrounding blackness. Fear and alarm pervade the whole piece.

The dancers start off in suits, but soon dispose of their jackets to reveal regular dress. So everyday were the costumes for all three works, I’m not sure anyone would have noticed if they hadn’t been changed in each interval. Urgent solos and group sections melt into one another with ease. Best of all are two riveting duets. That which finishes the piece left the audience so spellbound there was several seconds of absolute silence as the curtain fell before applause broke out. It was a hush that spoke volumes.

Opening the evening, Hofesh Shechter’s “Violent Kid” is full of his typical style and staging. Musicians are once again placed on a platform upstage. Shafts of light come from above focusing the eyes on just a small part of the stage. Dancers are in the usual urban, casual dress. The dance itself borrows heavily from previous works, most notably “Political Mother” and “Uprising”. Indeed, the opening scene of the latter when the march towards the front of the stage and stand motionless in retire is reprised several times. This device was not only overused here, but also appeared in both the other pieces performed. Elsewhere there is all the usual jerking, juddering and shuffling, shaking of arms and dancing in a circle.

It opens with Shechter’s voice. “Do I talk too much? Maybe if I didn’t talk so much, I’d have more friends,” he says. Then, “A good kid is a quiet kid”. The inference clearly is that he is neither. That brought a few smiles from the audience, but from then on it was back to Shechter’s usual dark, brooding dance.

What marked “Violent Kid” as different was not the choreography, but the way it was danced. Shechter’s work is known for its aggression and rawness. While you could see the dancers clearly striving for that, here everything was somewhat more refined. It sounds a strange thing to say, but if anything it was too perfect. There was a clear sense of the dancers trying to break free from their obviously excellent training, but no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t do so completely. Even the music was played at a lower volume that we are used to from him.

Between “Violent Kid” and “Grace Engine”, Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman’s “Tuplet” takes a sideways look at rhythm. The opening is not promising. Projectors show close-ups of mouths and hands while one dancer seems to rehearse connected but unremarkable movement. Things then pick up. At the front of the stage, each of the six dancers on their own small white square dance to the sounds of their own body percussion and the rhythm and pitch of syllables in their own names. It’s all punctuated by frequent blackouts that allow unseen restructuring of the space to take place, and effective if overused device, and another one that happened all evening. The ideas behind “Tuplet” are simple and hardly new, but once we got past that beginning it was most effectively done. All the dancers showed great sharpness and split second timing. The audience lapped it up.

Cedar Lake came to London preceded by an excellent reputation. The great news is that it appears to be well deserved and I, for one, would like to see more of the troupe. The good news is that they may well be back, with plans currently being discussed for a UK national tour next season.

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