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Given the scramble for funding these days, a dance company with a private sponsor—prepared to spend everything necessary to present and maintain it—lucks out. Lincoln Kirstein and his friends once did this for George Bal anchine’s enterprise, Bethsabée de Rothschild for Martha Graham’s, and Rebekah Harkness (for a while, anyway) for Robert Joffrey’s. Those patrons were supporting established artistry. Nancy Laurie built her contemporary ballet company, Cedar Lake, from scratch. After a rocky start, the group is ensconced in its own handsomely appointed establishment (built as a garage in 1914) in cutting-edge Chelsea. Money flows freely. The 15 excellent dancers are well taken care of. In short supply, however, are choreographic expertise and good taste. Benoit-Swan Pouffer is better-known in the dance world than Cedar Lake’s first artistic director, L. Jen Ballard, but he built his reputation as a performer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. As a choreographer, he’s still a novice.
I haven’t seen Cedar Lake’s second program, which Pouffer shares with Nicolo Fonte and Emily Molnar May 31 through June 4, only the first, featuring Pouffer’s Hammer, which runs through this Sunday. I’ll try to relive an experience I’d rather forget.
In the dark 191-seat theater, a line from Nietzsche appears on a white backdrop curving down to become a floor. Something about “[posing] questions with a hammer.” Bang! A seated woman (choreographic assistant Alexandra Damiani) hits the floor with a . . . you guessed it. Figures mill about on a large, irregularly shaped raft of black boards, their shadows (courtesy of lighting designer Jim French) looming behind them. Sounds of footsteps, traces of music in Stefano Zazzera’s score . . . I’m full of hope. The lights brighten with a visual bang, and instantly the raft people are on their feet, dancing fairly interesting tough movement in unison. They stare into the dimmer corners—perhaps, like me, wondering what those two piled-up threesomes are doing.
What’s happening here? Is it worth scavenging for evidence of Pouffer’s program statement? “Narrative in nature, Hammer chronicles an individual’s search for personal answers, or rather, the experience of ‘living the question.’ ” Could a couple of dancers shedding ordinary shoes and carefully, bravely stepping off the raft be a sign of getting back to basics? No. Shortly the women all don pointe shoes. Roderick George, who’s been writhing dreamily in one of the trios, steps onto the black area. He’s small and young; maybe he’s the quester? Nope. After a short nap, the group dismantles the raft board by board.
Pouffer constantly sets us up and then moves on to something else. A hammer is a serious symbol, but hey, let’s have a little fun with it. Clever projected Busby Berkeley pinwheels (Adam Larsen’s design) multiply the image of a woman in a little red skirt holding a hammer. The real women parade for emcee Jason Kittelberger, while humorous mock TV commercials tout the improbable things you can do with the tool.
When the floor becomes a field of projected grass, I realize that I’m never going to get on Pouffer’s wavelength. I am, in fact, “living the question” myself and not happily. Cryptic, oddly awkward images swirl over the floor via a video projector hitting a suspended mirror bowl. A woman (Ebony Williams) passes through, gradually acquiring a garment of balloons. So? Red lights beaming; people leaping, spinning, running up the curved back wall, popping out of a window midway up it and sliding down. Happiness for them is changing into dark clothes and releasing the balloons tied to their wrists. Wait! Here comes a playful afterthought duet for two sterling performers, Kittelberger and Nickemil Concepcion. Out of the blue, Damiani passes the hammer to Matt Rich, who bangs the floor. Blackout.
Bless the dancers giving this mishmash their all. Find them something meatier to chew on!