In the ten years since Nancy Walton Laurie founded Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, I’m sure I’m not the first person who has taken advantage of her status as a Walmart heiress to make a cheap joke about buying ammunition and art in the same emporium. But the truth is, in a country where public arts funding is increasingly scarce, we’d be fortunate if more of the privately wealthy felt compelled to become patrons of the arts—to not only fund established institutions but to dare to support experiments and new work from the ground up. A project like Cedar Lake demonstrates what such patronage can produce: a stable of stunning dancers, a repertory of commissioned and acquired works by leading living choreographers, and houses filled with dancers and dance enthusiasts. For a company known for mass-produced goods, maltreated workers, and a nefarious hand in bankrupting an innocent pickle company (sort of), a companion company of artists employed a nearly unheard of 52 weeks a year is a strange but rather wonderful side effect.
The program presented at Zellerbach Hall February 22-23 was structured according to a winning formula possibly developed by statisticians and market researchers or maybe just drilled into our Western minds by the sonata: engaging exposition, meditative second movement, pulse-quickening finale. First on the bill was Jiri Kylian’s 1998 Indigo Rose, a piece for nine dancers initially created on Nederlands Dans Theater II. As with much of Kylian’s work, the piece is characterized by unforgettable visual spectacle and movement that acquires dimension and significance through the complexity of its pauses. The piece begins with a single dancer crossing the stage purposefully until his head makes a tangent with the long hypotenuse created by a string strung diagonally down the stage. Moving with jagged action driven by the shoulder and hip joints, angularity and compulsion seemed to be the organizing principles of the motion, the body existing as an irrepressible tic that surpasses its own speed with the punctuation of precise stillness. A rapid fire dance for two and then a few men who are (shockingly in our very serious contemporary moment) actually allowed to smile was succeeded by duets danced in parallel under pairs of lights set on dim and dusk, dances that began in contrast and finally coalesced into a unison. A bright white curtain comes rolling down the line, filling in the space indicated with the liquid and ether of silk, properties used to advantage as the curtain variously serves as translucent backdrop, solid barrier, and dynamic ripples that seem to make the very air around it strobe. The dancers are color popping against geometry that plays on scale—the simple optical illusion created by the tilted space and then a clever use of silhouettes that allows a pipsqueak man to appear between the legs of a colossal woman. The piece ends with the bodies taking their impressive stillness beneath a projected film of close-up, occasionally stop-motion, black-and-white shots of the faces and hands of the dancers, eyes blinking, a brow furrowing, a man molding a woman’s face like clay on a potter’s wheel—it’s captivating, and it’s a little sad, because it tells us how much we love a vision of life that’s been manipulated, and how we’ll stare at it, even while the living breathing bodies and all the aura of live theater is right before our eyes.
Crystal Pite’s Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue, premiered by Cedar Lake in 2008, is a great deal more spare in visual design, though no less arresting in its own way. The set is a semi-circle of light booms that form an arena in which bodies encounter each other in what appears to be a set of movement experiments or questions, like, how do you hold another person without using your hands? How can you keep pace moving across the stage when the two of you occupy different worlds, one slow and deliberate, the other frantic and fast, holding hands? How can you find and maneuver your partner via the invisible strings that hold him or her together? And so on.
Jo Strømgren’s Necessity, Again, created on Cedar Lake in 2012, juxtaposes a recorded interview with Jacques Derrida, music by French-Armenian singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour, and lots of musical theater-style formations and situations with sheets and sheets of paper on clotheslines and loose on the floor and stapled to a dancer’s dress and tossed about madly. It was danced with verve and skill and contained some locally fascinating moments, such as a fraught trio that used a table as an alternate, shifting surface against which normal gravitational rules applied. Everyone was dressed in gender-appropriate clothes and the girls had their hair in bouffants and the boys had on nice slacks and sports coats, and it made me ask, why have the 1950s become a necessary shorthand for heterosexual relationships and barely repressed sexuality, sort of like the Victorians for Americans? Why does a great payload of paper have to indicate the futility of text? Why does necessity need to be coded as lust?
Despite being a completely enjoyable evening, watching a repertory company such as this makes me wonder how contemporary dance develops under an American economic system. The company manager spouted the party line that Cedar Lake presents “European” work, but that doesn’t seem like a particularly focused line of development. Private funding can and should buy superb dancers and hot choreographers, but is there really a superior European aesthetic or only a superior system in place for developing it that only private wealth can afford to cultivate in America?
Cal Performances presents Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet at 8 p.m. Feb. 22-23 at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$68; calperformances.org