Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet is one of my favorite companies around. They are consistently the most rehearsed, most athletic, committed and talented crews I have the pleasure of watching. The majority of their pieces are well costumed and expertly lit, and always have a loud signature.
While the 2012 repertoire at the Joyce did not quite live up, in my opinion, to the programin 2011, this year was a vast improvement over the uneven offering of odes to despair and anxiety of 2012. I wish I had been able to see the other cast as well, but what I saw definitely told me Cedar Lake is back on track and almost as strong as ever (with a few exceptions in their female roster I will explain below).
The first piece, Jiri Kylian's Indigo Rose, suited the company wonderfully. Originally set on Nederlands Dance Theater II in 1998, this ballet is new to Cedar Lake's repertoire in 2013. The piece begins with a series of solos, leading into groupings, with each dancer in different colors. A diagonal sheet across the stage then allows dancing in front and interesting vignettes in shadow - the most memorable, if kitschy of which is an effect where a tiny man is dancing beneath a woman's legs en seconde.
New company addition and SYTYCD alum, Billy Bell (in olive in the video), opened the piece with an exclamation point (and danced the tiny man in the aforementioned vignette - his shadow is distinctive). His stage presence, controlled flexibility and clean technique made everyone around me take notice and there was quite a bit of excited chatter every time he came back on stage. He has some of the most beautiful lines I've seen - he actually reminded me of an edgier David Hallberg in some ways - although I find the shapes Bell can make with his limbs and his intensity in many respects more interesting.
Indigo Rose also showcased some of my other favorite Cedar Lake dancers, including Jon Bond (in red), the towering, muscular and graceful Joaquim de Santana, the ever-engaging Vania Doutel Vaz (in red) and the company's most exciting female, Ebony Williams (in brown). My main regret for the evening is that Ms. Williams was not used more. She's a powerhouse of talent and lithe muscularity, and in my opinion, walking proof of how urgently the ballet world needs to start showcasing its marvelous African-American ballerinas.
The second selection was Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue by Crystal Pite.
Friday's cast consisted of Jason Kittleberger, Joseph Kudera, Navarra Novy-Williams, Matthew Rich and Acacia Schachte. The men were definitely the stronger dancers in this selection - while Ms. Novy-Williams is an adorable little blonde (the girl in green in the Indigo Rose video), she doesn't quite have the brute strength and presence I have come to expect from Cedar Lake. I found myself missing alum Harumi Terayama terribly by this point in the program.
Otherwise, I really enjoyed the interactions among the cast in this offering - there was somewhat too much repetition in the choreography, but the costumes worked and the music was interesting, and the overlap and intersection of the duets worked. I also particularly enjoyed the lighting by Jim French in this piece - not really clear in the video but some of the spotlights were moved by the cast into different positions in the arc to light various duets from different angles. (Production value like this really makes me want to take ABT's Kevin McKenzie by the shoulders and shake him into realizing that this is the type of simple innovation that is sorely needed on his larger stage to get patrons excited - not uninvested, arrogant dancer imports.)
As usual, the weakest link in this piece for me was Cedar Lake's de facto principal ballerina, Acacia Schachte. While she is one of the most committed and fittest dancers I've ever seen, I almost cringe every time I watch her dance. Worse in the last piece on the program, which I will address below, I have a real problem with the constant hunched roundness of her shoulders and the broken lines she makes by constantly over-exaggerating turned-in ankles and hyperextended limbs. It's to the point that she makes me squirm - she makes me think of a skeleton with broken joints - an unnatural, gollum-esque style of movement that, while unique, consistently pulls me out of the larger piece and the choreography to make me wish that any other dancer (ahem, Ebony Williams) were dancing in her stead. (In the video above, she is the female with the short bobbed hair - the video is dark but the angular feet and hunch are there).
The final piece was Horizons by Adonis Foniadakis. While I was pulled in by the minor keyed, frantic music, the costumes, especially on the men, in this ballet were particularly unflattering.
I found myself daydreaming over and over again trying to imagine the dance re-set with the dancers in black shorts/leotards or even in their rehearsal clothes. These industrial gray and maroon uniforms looked like rejects from 1990s sci-fi movies, perhaps on a sad, mining planet. It takes a lot to make the gloriously musical Joaquim de Santana look un-sexy but this costume did the trick. That said - his ending of the piece - throwing himself across and onto the stage as if a man possessed with no thought of his safety was really something to see. Jon Bond was again terrific in this ballet. The women let me down a little, Jin Young Won and Navarra Novy-Williams were too sweet - the urgency of the choreography felt a little short on them (again I wished Ebony Williams and Vania Doutel Vaz had been cast in their stead. The exception was Ida Saki who really matched the required musicality (and had the best costume)). Especially interesting were points in the program where there were two couples dancing at once, and not altogether to the same choreography - although there were points of intersection. Situated in different lighting and at different levels, my eye didn't know quite where to look - whom to watch. There were some less successful moments in this piece - involving what sounds like a yoga DVD instructor telling the dancers to take a breath or lie down, which they don't actually do....
Unfortunately, after a long stint in this grey world, Acacia Schachte came back out in a gauzy nude dress for a duet on a bright red carpet in the rain. The concept was good - but the execution was, for me, almost painful. The male lead - who unfortunately I cannot name (it might have been Joseph Kudra, but I can't confirm) was fantastic. Supportive and strong, he did everything he could to make the pas de deux work. Ms. Schachte, however fully committed to the moment she was, did not make one attractive position in the entire movement. Her hands were crumpled, shoulders exaggeratedly hunched, ankles neither flexed nor pointed, neck tensed....I don't even want to remember it enough to write about it. I'm fully prepared for the possibility that choreographers love her and purposefully cast her in these leads and tell her to exaggerate, but it definitely makes me want to get up and leave. If I had known she'd be dancing two leads in this program I may well have chosen to attend a different night - that's how much I do not enjoy watching her. (Note that Schachte is not in this movement in the video above - that seems to be Jin Young Won. She's not my favorite but it's monumentally better in shape than the live version Schachte gave me, albeit without the intensity that is Schachte's strongest appeal.)
All in all, this was a more balanced program than last year - where the final pieces on the program really let me down - but here there was still a little of that because of the weakness of the art design. I felt like this piece wound up last solely because of the rain effect, but really wasn't as strong as the two that preceded it.
Cedar Lake is always worth the trip - and I do plan to continue to seek out their shows - but I will likely be calling ahead to make sure I go on a night when Williams or Doutel Vaz is the leading lady.