Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet is one of my favorite companies out there, with some of the most athletic-yet-graceful dancers I have ever seen and a multicultural ensemble that always strikes me as a microcosm of humanity. Usually boundary-pushing, neither of the two programs presented at the Joyce this May offered the same exceptional alternating savagery, solemnity and whimsy of the past programs I've seen from Cedar Lake, but the wonderful Cedar Lake dancers, and the always stellar Cedar Lake artistic design team, still managed to deliver some moments not soon to be forgotten. Program A, which I saw the evening of Saturday, May 19th, skipped the whimsy entirely and went straight for the solemnity. It seemed as though someone wanted to warn the audience of something - but I wasn't sure what.
The standout of the first week's program was by far Violet Kid, choreographed by Hofesh Schecter. At once tribal and futuristic, this is a long, pleasant assault on the senses that almost seems to combine ballet, krumping, modern dance and even elements of aboriginal movement. At the performance I saw, more so than in the clip linked above, the unison and uniformity of mood and gaze of the fourteen Cedar Lake dancers was remarkable. Whether the choreographer's intention or not, the towering Joaquim de Santana was a standout, commanding his inexhaustible resistance army and keeping the rhythm and fervor flowing. And while Violet Kid is not a narrative piece, there was a story, a society, an event, clearly underpinning the visual experience. I found my mind racing through books I've read and movies I'd seen looking for the right context as if through a Rolodex - but although there was definitely something familiar to my imagination, Schecter's creation is a new story which left me wanting to discover more, to know who these characters are, the circumstances that led them to these moments, and the events that would follow. (I was left a little confused by the string trio playing only part of the music live in a raised corner of the stage, and only sometimes visible; I don't think it added anything to the experience, especially since the driving force of the score was recorded percussion)
After an uncomfortably long intermission, second up was Annonciation, a duet featuring the company's apparent principal, Acacia Schachte, and my personal favorite, Harumi Terayama. I admit, I might have enjoyed this piece more had I not read the program notes to know it was a Christian-themed exploration. Perhaps as an abstract contemporary piece for two strong women, I would have been able to project my own assumptions onto the relationship and been more receptive to the slow, repetitive and surprisingly unemotional choreography. Set to alternating ambient noise and classical music, Angelin Preljocaj's Annociation was for me not the easiest piece to watch. Perhaps an attempt by artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer to give the audience a break after the incessant energy of Violet Kid, instead, this piece made me feel a little like my high-speed motor boat had stalled in the middle of a lake and was taking on water. No fault of Schachte and Terayama - who executed the slow, tension filled choreography and difficult floor work with almost inhuman core strength and focus - for me this was not the right piece to follow Violet Kid on the program. (I found myself longing instead for the whimsy of Sunday, Again, my favorite piece from past seasons.)
As a result, I think the final piece of the evening, Grace Engine choreographed by Chrystal Pite, was less enjoyable than it could have been. Had it been the opening piece, I actually think I would have enjoyed this Matrix-meets-Gattica-meets-Fringe shadow-world of unisex business suits and atmospheric lighting, including some that eerily resembled prison-yard watch lights. Another piece for a large ensemble, this time a world of rushing, frustrated functionaries or corporate cogs, Grace Engine drew me in but took me nowhere. Jon Bond had a number standout solo moments - and again Joaquim de Santana came to the forefront with his graceful yet forceful presence. Grace Engine seemed almost like a prequel to Violet Kid - one could imagine some apocalyptic movie where this dark, uniform world with some of the same twitching and throbbing could somehow give rise to the more creature-like urgency and unfocused gazes of the streetwear-clad band in the first piece. I suspect that if the program had been reversed, it would have given the audience a more satisfying sense of beginning and end. Both pieces actually lacked resolution - but whereas Grace Engine's ending was abrupt, one could imagine that the dancing band of rebels in Violet Kid would keep moving until some external element came dramatically to change their reality. Both gave us a bleak view of the future, but there was also something hopeful in Violet Kid that was missing in Grace Engine.