Tied Up in Knots

When a dance 'speaks' to us, does the choreographer always know what it's trying to say?

It's not often that a fully funded dance company emerges out of the blue—much less one that's conceived as a profitable venture, provides full-time employment and health insurance for its 13 artists, and expects to develop its own state-of-the-art facility in New York. Meet Cedar Lake Ensemble, the brainchild of owner-founder Nancy Walton Laurie and artistic director Jen Ballard.

The company, which makes its official New York debut at NYU's new Skirball Center in June, presented "sneak previews" at DTW showcasing three pieces by Ballard, one by Angel Fraser-Logan, and one by the Ailey company's Benoit-Swan Pouffer. I admire the vibrant dancers (including three from Eliot Feld's suspended Ballet Tech), note the brilliantly theatrical lighting by Ryan Ogara, read the lofty statements of artistic intent, and wonder if I'm losing my mind.

All five works on the program make use of a high-powered, eclectic vocabulary, and the mix of modern dance, ballet, and jazz elements is spiced by novel or interestingly quirky moves. All are laden with misty semi-narratives that aim for the universal. The dancers thrust their legs high as if breaking imagined chains; they spin as if about to explode. In Ballard's trio Detached, to Osvaldo Golijov's music as recorded by the Kronos Quartet, Nickemil Concepcion and Justin Peck dreamily mold with Patricia Tuthill (on pointe) into striking pyramids but also toss her wildly; she may look anguished or think about escaping, but she's drawn to these games. Detached, however, is described in promotional material not as a relationship among three people, but as "the struggle to detach oneself from the known world." Drops of Tears looks like a tribal rite (Bradley Meinke's corsets and grass skirts for the men and semi-Grecian tunics for the women abet the image, as does Eva Schampaert's live performance of her percussion-and-vocals score). The baffling element is Joline Baldini, who enters with a long, uncanny balance and a slow tipped turn, leaning her head on Concepcion's chest, and ends gasping her way along a diagonal of light. The dancers are identified as "divine bodies of water learning to walk among mortals on dry land" (the concept of "the submerged body"—never explained—is men- tioned as crucial to Ballard's work).

Ten Feet, many fingers in Elam work
photo: Dona Ann McAdams
Ten Feet, many fingers in Elam work

There's a similarly grandiose rationale behind the effective Pavor Nocturnes, a virtuosic solo that Concepcion performs with a wonderfully truthful and reticent approach to its drama. Basically it's about a man's unbreakable connection with a bed, undoubtedly symbolic, that lowers, rises, tilts, and at one moment threatens to crush him as he hangs from it and vaults onto it in perilous ways.

Fraser-Logan's Tenacity also raises unanswered questions about identity, with smoke and translucent panels (by Martin La Belle) that rise and descend on alone-together quests and struggles. The highlight is a brief, uncanny solo for Jason Jordan in which his body seems to be coming apart. Pouffer's Parts of Us focuses on three duets in varying moods for sexy Tuthill and Jordan, Baldini and Concepcion, and Penny Saunders and Eddy Bowles, whose gaiety eventually affects the others.

So much talent. So much foggy thinking.


Chris Elam has fashioned a distinctive, engagingly bizarre choreographic style out of a propensity for tying bodies in knots and intensive studies of Balinese dance. In his solo Tin Man, he treats his body as if it were one of those puzzles involving interlocking rings. If this part slips through here, can this then move there? He seems to stand forever on one leg figuring out strategies. In duets, any erotic implications of body parts in close conjunction are subordinate to images of clumsy tenderness, as two people use each other as seats, ladders, cradles, and mazes. Elam has casually acknowledged an aesthetic kinship with Pilobolus and Momix, but his work is odder and more intimately human.

The Balinese influence crops up in, say, a lunge or spraddle-legged walk, topped by lifted shoulders and outspread arms. It's particularly evident in Ten Feet, in which five dancers in shaggy brown costumes and headpieces with manes prance into curious relationships; someone's foot may get temporarily stuck on someone else's back.

In Hush Fire, set to original music by Andy Teirstein, Laura Pocius and Jason Somma's living knots—whether perverse or inevitable—bespeak affectionate curiosity. In Dreams of Your Acceptance, Abbey Dehnert and Amber Sloan are more playful (at one point Sloan grabs her breasts and makes them "speak" to Sloan). In the duet that opens Our Town, Pocius and Dehnert vie for dominance. But this fascinating dance also involves rambunctious Jennifer Harmer, who inserts herself into their entanglements, at one point trying to keep her head grafted onto Pocius. Eliza Littrell, a puzzled loner, further complicates intersections that suggest not just ingenious designs but road maps of a community. In Maggie and George, to Teirstein's music for Jew's harp and a sweet old song ("When You and I Were Young, Maggie"), Elam and Dehnert's touching adventures with two window frames call to mind the jungle in all of us, but also a long, happy life together.

It's a question how far Elam can take his stylistic choices or how he'll develop, but right now his skill and clarity of vision delight the soul.

 
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