Theater archives

Cedar Lake Freezes While Yoshiko Chuma Thaws


“Sleek and powerful.” Words heavily featured in car ads fit the dancers of Cedar Lake like a bespoke suit. All of them have high-level ballet chops, yet are adroit at screwing themselves into the forceful, gleaming, off-kilter steps designed by the mostly European choreographers invited by artistic director Benoit-Swan to stage works for the company.

Cedar Lake is a classy establishment. The paper in the press release is thick, the press kit an artfully designed, paperback-sized folder. Stylishly spare set designs enliven the high-ceilinged black-box theater. Lighting designer Jim French’s 15 moveable standing spotlights for Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite’s Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue (the black lamps themselves looking oddly like Meryl Streep’s bonnet in Doubt) suggest observers as well as illuminators. The nine dancers in Didy Veldman’s frame of view move in and around Miriam Buether’s skeletal “room,” in which three wooden doors that look suspended in emptiness prove to be sturdy enough to slam, clamber up, and hang from.

Because the company is handsomely endowed (the dancers are paid 52 weeks a year), it can not only commission pieces, but, on occasion, are able to give certain choreographers residencies of several months to develop material with the performers. In 2007, Batsheva’s Ohad Naharin adapted his Decadance for Cedar Lake with stunning results, and this year the half- Flemish, half-Moroccan Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui will make a new work to commissioned music. New Yorkers who remember with delight the collaboration between Akram Khan and Cherkaoui that was shown at BAM last April will either make a trip to Jacob’s Pillow this summer to catch the Cedar Lake premiere or see it at the Joyce next fall.

The members of Cedar Lake are interesting and individual. You want to know them better, see their special qualities as people—not just as the dream machines they are in one of this season’s commissions, Luca Veggetti’s memory/measure. Veggetti isolates four dancers (Jubal Battisti, Jon Bond, Soojin Choi, and Acacia Schachte in the cast I saw) in a black space on a white floor. Roderick Murray’s lighting is clear and simple, but subtly enhancing. The unadorned black outfits are softened by velvet. The movement, likewise, is not harsh, but neither is it revelatory. The four move mostly in isolation from one another to an eruptive sound score by Paolo Aralla. Schachte is on pointe and bare-legged—given to deep wide-legged pliés on her toe-tips that give her a spidery look (this must be a favorite move of Veggetti’s; it figured in Silence Text, a work he staged for Benjamin Millepied’sgroup in 2006).

Amid the crashes, a woman’s voice speaks intermittently. Veggetti said in an interview that the text was inspired by Ingmar Bergman, but its cryptic sentences (e.g., “Nothing happens for a long time and then the sound of steps”) and the ambience of memory/measure remind me more of Alain Resnais Last Year at Marienbad (minus the elegant attire and the formal gardens). The text’s spoken words (like “pointed” and “fell”) seem to fly around and alight on dancers and briefly trigger corresponding gestures; you have to keep scanning the stage to catch the moves before they’re dropped. The pauses in which the four stare about searchingly refer to the fleeting nature of memories. The word “measure” in the title is reflected in the journeys that various of them make at different times—tracing the perimeters in slow, deep lunging steps or testing their equilibrium. It’s all very precise and chill, as if the performers were test drivers calculating the efficiency of the beautiful machines that are their bodies.

Didy Feldman clearly intended to present the nine dancers as personages in her frame of view. Buether has costumed each of them differently in rather eccentric street clothes. The snatches of music—from sources as diverse as Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman, Jacques Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas” sung by Nina Simone, and the Kronos Quartet’s rendition of a piece by Osvald Golijov—support such a variety of endeavors and encounters having to do with doors that we can’t zero in on any one of the gifted performers for long. They open and close the set’s doors, enter and leave, pause in the beams laid out by Ben Ormerod’s lighting. They wait in the area outside the “room.” And, of course, they dance—expertly and engagingly—choreographic material that has a kind of offhand fluency but tells us little about them.

Solitude is the obvious theme, contrasted to the hubbub of partying (voices on tape). Certain scenes stand out. Schachte, strutting coolly in imaginary high heels, is followed by a contingent of men (Christopher Adams, Jason Kittleberger, Oscar Ramos, Golan Yosef, and Battisti); she gets rid of them, finally slamming the door and laughing as she romps to Offenbach’s famous can-can. The guys hang out on the other side of the door for a while, resting and chatting, but leave one by one. Naturally, she’s disappointed. But she snuggles up to a mysterious lover behind the central door, whose face pushes out the stretchy fabric on the doors’ panel and who slips an inviting hand through the mailbox. Clichés abound. Ana-Maria Lucacu does a frustrated-office-worker number, tangling herself around a desk and chair. In a scene redolent of Pina Bausch, Lucacu, Schachte, Choi, and Marina Mascarelli keep wilting and screaming out for “Jason”; Kittelberger races to catch each one before she hits the floor.

Pite’s modest Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue (which I saw at its premiere and reviewed a year ago) is one of Cedar Lake’s best works, with five dancers spelling each other in a series of one-on-one adventures. And it’s not always the men who do the manipulating. Battisti, Bond, and Choi join Nickemil Concepcion and Ebony Williams in the cast I saw. Watching Bond and Williams in a burst of fast unison, you can see one of Pite’s talents. The dancers don’t make only big-whole-bodied moves; now a thrust-out leg seizes the initiative, now an arm sweeps up, now the torso makes a comment—all without breaking the flow. That’s more unusual than you might think in this kind of go-for-broke dancing, and very welcome.

The first full week of January is always bursting with dance performances for the delectation of those who attend the APAP conference (Association of Performing Arts Presenters). Companies either try to schedule their seasons in town that week, or present excerpts from their work in showcases all over the city. X2 , a collaboration between Yoshiko Chuma and Shirotama Hitsujiya, the artistic director of the Tokyo-based Yubiwa Hotel, could hardly be more different from Cedar Lake’s glossy adventures in expertise. The announcement for X2 contained a single provocative line (typos and all): “Human being freeze themselves into blooks of ice and seek the spark that will them free again.” The audience of 40 that can barely squeeze onto three risers at one end of CRS’s small gallery is treated to a performance rooted in political concern, intelligence, and utter wackiness that’s presented with the kind of informality a hostess might offer her drop-in guests.

Ray Roy, billed as “video wizard,” controls the projected lush green landscape-with-waterfall, over which fly hordes of winged little (action?) figures. He carefully places tiny plastic trees in front of a lamp that throws images of them onto the side wall. Oh, and he’s wearing a bear-head. On tape, little high voices sing “Summertime.” An eight-year-old girl, Lincoln Alkind, gets up from her seat in the first row and positions a remote-controlled flying saucer to zoom around the landscape (two humps covered in clear plastic). Chuma, transforming gesticulation into an urgent dance, has to duck. If the saucer overturns, Alkind rights it. The jungle becomes night sky. Aurora Borealises materialize (lighting by Rie Ono). Kristine Lee and Chuma do a lot of plugging and unplugging of construction-site lights on long cords and uncover the humps. During one of their cleanups of performance detritus, videos of hurricanes and volcanic flow agitate the background.

They drag in what looks like a corpse, but turns out to be an American flag, with the prone, but very much alive Hitsujiwa lying on it. She’s wearing rabbit ears and ice skates. The flag gets covered with clear plastic. (Is it getting colder in here?) So now we have a girlfriend-duo. Hitsujiya harmonizes on “Welcome to Shanghai” with Lee, who’s also her obliging translator. Lee tells a tale that begins “Once there was a bunny,” and goes into the bunny’s family background (her great grandmother spoke Esperanto). The lumps turn out to be ice blocks. Inside one, you can see a book of what look like family photos. Roy mentions his heritage (he’s a Russian Polish Jew and something else I forget). Hitsujiya turns to him: “You don’t really need to say that; you are bear.” Another sequence isn’t so funny: Chuma brandishes a revolver at us furiously, but it’s aimed at her, and her white coat leaks green blood as she staggers around. In the crowd-engaging category, Alkind stands very close to the first row and does a card trick that involves a tale of four kings going into a building (the deck) and climbing onto the roof one by one. She pulls this off with aplomb while Chuma hovers; accidentally getting an ace on her third draw from the deck, the third-grader remarks coolly, “I guess one of them didn’t make it out.”

It seems as if we’re dealing with the past as puzzled over by the future, with an ice age and global warming and climate disarray. Roy places an extinct dinosaur in front of the light but also creates a little farmyard that’s swept away. Attacking the ice block with picks and the skates, the cast hands out chips to us in little plastic bags and invites us to drink from a glass of liquid with a big ice chunk floating in it. The “water” turns out to be vodka. They sing “Country Road” in Japanese. A video shows the Tetons swathed in ice. In the end, while the flag is being folded and the performing area stripped bare, little Alkind stands with the photo album, still glazed with ice, held between her hands. She looks uncomfortable holding this freezing relic but doesn’t give up. Our heroine. Faint, fragile, and far away, we can hear the beginning notes of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

This enigmatic, scrambled, absurdist performance shakes me up strangely—as if unfreezing were a process both benign and cataclysmic. It reminds me too that we as a nation have a lot of house-cleaning to do, and we’d better get started.

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