Benoit-Swan Pouffer, the artistic director of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, keeps his eyes on the European dance scene—acquiring and commissioning works by youngish choreographers from abroad that show off his company’s 15 magnificent dancers. Demonstrating their prowess must have been the principal aim of Italian choreographer Jacopo Godani’s double-cast sextet, Unit in Reaction. His program note for its New York premiere during Cedar Lake’s first week at the Joyce speaks of pushing the performers to their limits, as well as devising patterns that “split, mutate, and are in flux.” Wishing to convey the sensory overload of today’s world, Godani, who was once a leading dancer in William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt, has absorbed Forsythe’s interest in minute dissection of movement and pressurized it to the max.
Godani is skillful at deploying groups. The six dancers, in their sleek, translucent dark brown unitards, do move as a unit—sometimes in two audience-facing rows arranged by gender, sometimes marching in a phalanx. When a soloist emerges (Jon Bond is particularly electric in his), the others keep up a slightly subdued drilling to the fierce goad of a score by Ulrich Müller and Siegfried Rössert of 48Nord. Godani’s lighting design, with its opening on/off display of poses and sudden cold glares, adds to the atmosphere of veiled threats.
The performers’ fluency in his ornate, but precise language wins big with the Joyce audience, and at the curtain call, it rightly cheers what the panting, sweating tribe has achieved. If there were such a thing as aggressive taffy, it could star in Unit in Reaction. Every move is achieved through a muscular fusillade of ripples; the performers can’t reach out a hand without undulating their spines first, during, and after the gesture. Clustered and interacting, they resemble a snake pit. If Dorothy, traveling through Oz with her friends, came across them doing their almost unstoppable maneuvers, they’d be named the Noodlies, and Toto would bark at them.
A second New York premiere, Hubbub, by Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman, presents all 15 Cedar Lakers in a more playful and humane way. It’s indeed sort of a hubbub of a piece—and not just because, at one point, everyone’s talking at once, and the accompaniment blends Xavier Cugat hits with a Chopin nocturne. The stage is cluttered at the beginning and again at the end, plus there’s a lot of stuff in Hubbub and a lot of changes (it does feel a bit long).
Ekman’s topic is performance, and although he introduces all the clichés inherent in a dance about how dancing is analyzed and regarded, he brings them off, for the most part, with humor, style, and charm. A typewriter hangs on one side of the stage, a length of paper entering it from above and falling to the floor. The dancers, wearing nude-appearing underwear and black socks, arrange their individual, wheel-able metal tables, while a voice introduces them as “participants.” This voice is both central to the piece and one of its flaws. The text (by Spenser Theberge) casts the speaker as teacher and critic, bent on interpreting Hubbub and discoursing on art. It’s deliberately pretentious, but the invisible speaker is so awkwardly pompous that he takes our attention off what he’s saying.
The dancers are terrific. They assume positions that bear almost no resemblance to the ballet ones the speaker identifies. They bound on and off the tables. They don baggy black sweatsuits, tops rolled down at first. They move the tables out of the way and gradually jab and slash their way into a long, difficult spate of dancing, eventually whooshing out their breaths in a rapid-fire rhythm. They add a jumble of voices. They paint their faces with Magic Markers.
The high point is a male-female duet performed, on opening night, by Nickemil Concepcion and Harumi Terayama. In synch with their recorded voices, they engagingly kibitz their way through the vigorous piece. In another trite, but inevitably beguiling sequence, the speaker reveals increasingly preposterous secrets about the lined-up performers (identifying each only by a number). No matter what he says, they maintain goofy, fixed smiles. (Pina Bausch, are you watching from above?) After this the Chopin nocturne music filters in, and lighting designer Jim French turns things blue and serene. But Ekman won’t let the piece get too serious. Back to hubbub, back to mess—tables askew, performers collapsed.
The first week’s program also included Jo Strømgren’s 2008 Sunday, Again. The second week offers the New York premiere of Hofesh Shechter’s The Fools and reprises Didy Veldman’s 2009 Frame of View. It may be Cedar Lake’s interesting programming that has increased its audience to the point that it has outgrown its own 164-seat theater, but the dancers have a lot to do with its popularity. If I had more space, I’d list every name and add an exclamation point to it.