Theater archives

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui Tries Getting In Our Heads with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet


One of the summer pleasures offered by the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival is the chance to see companies that have not yet performed in New York, like Kidd Pivot from Canada, or that haven’t appeared there in a number of years, like Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet (both due at the Pillow in August). Benoit-Swan Pouffer, who directs the New York­–based Cedar Lake, typically commissions pieces by choreographers from abroad, whose work may be unfamiliar to us. It’s no wonder, then, that Cedar Lake’s world premiere at the Pillow by the hot-in-Europe, Flemish-Moroccan Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui stirred up a major advance buzz.

The piece’s title, Orbo Novo, is drawn from a 1493 reference to North America by Spanish historian Pietro Martire d’Anghiera. But the “new world” that Cherkaoui is exploring is current theories about the brain, and the text that the 17 superb dancers speak during the first moments of the 75-minute work comes from My Stroke of Insight, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor’s uncanny recollection of her stroke. The choreography is based on the ramifications of a single resonant idea: the duality between rationality (the left brain) and instinctive, sensual responses (the right brain); between control and the lack of it; between balance and instability, solitude and society.

In visualizing these inner states, Cherkaoui is vastly aided by Alexander Dodge’s set. Four 12-foot-tall, tripartite folding screens of latticed reddish-brown metal are not only massive jungle gyms to be climbed; wheeled about by the performers, they create rooms, cages, fences, and mazes. Interior and exterior become mutable concepts. Dancers project stiffly through the structures’ square openings and hang limply from them—half in, half out.

In her opening solo, Acacia Schachte gives an amazing demonstration of a mind and body slipping out of control—not wildly, but with a silky fluidity shaken by small jolts. Her knees buckle, her arms ripple, her head lolls, her chest and hips slip into disagreements. This kind of movement—along with scrabbling and rolling on the floor—dominates the piece, although sometimes the choreography expands into more athletic dancing, with off-balance whirling, back falls, vaults, and somersaults.

After Schachte has finished, Jubal Battisti and Kristen Weiser sit cross-legged at the front of the stage (much as Cherkaoui and Akram Khan did in their marvelous collaborative duet, zero degrees, seen at City Center in 2008). Gesturing fluently with their arms, they recite in unison an excerpt from Bolte Taylor’s memoir. Gradually, others enter and exit in small groups to take over the words. Gesturing or motionless, they fracture the text’s linearity by speaking at different times or just moving their mouths. A sweet-voiced violin speaks out. The five members of the Mosaic String Quartet, plus pianist Aaron Wunsch (seated behind a scrim at the back), have begun to play Szymon Brzóska’s excellently sensitive, silence-pitted score. During all the dance’s strenuous activities, its shifting textures chart the changes of mood.

There is much that is remarkable—gripping—in Orbo Novo. Jason Kittelberger has a stunning solo, in which he repeatedly drops to his knees and hoists himself up, as if his joints were springs. Ebony Williams and Jon Bond also brilliantly portray the altered states of awareness. Marina Mascarell and Golan Yosef turn rigid shaking into its own horrifying dance. In one startling, semi-literal depiction of the split brain, Yosef and Nickemil Concepcion coil and twist around each other, always keeping their heads joined in some way. Soojin Choi enters to become a link between them, a hand on each of their heads. Amazing dancers—all of them.

Bolte Taylor lovingly recalls those moments during her stroke when she felt as if she were immense and luminous, the boundaries between her and everything else blurring. To her, that was nirvana. Since stability and balance are usually dance’s way of expressing states of perfection, it’s difficult for a choreographer to portray a ceding of control as enlightenment. Bolte Taylor’s words, as spoken by the dancers, elicit chuckles from the audience (“This is so cool! I’m having a stroke”). But there is no such daffy humor—right-brain takeover as a Woodstock of the mind—in the choreography. The dancers are never just people relating or not relating to one another; they’re neuropsychological states with marvelously disciplined bodies, dressed in eccentric, subtly hippie-ish clothing (costumes by Isabelle Lhoas).

That may be the reason my attention lags slightly toward the latter part of Orbo Novo. Despite the hymnlike sounds at the end of Brzóska’s music, the world that Cherkaoui has created is a perpetual snare, so complicated and porous that out becomes in, and in seems like out. Perhaps I wish for the hint of an escape from shifts between right-brained and left-brained behavior. Bolte Taylor, after all, recovered from her stroke and wrote a book about it.

At, read about Lucinda Childs’s Dance, Gallim Dance, and Groupe Émile Dubois