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Cedar Lake Stuns with Triple Bill

Written by Mariko Nagashima

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in Crystal Pite’s Grace Engine
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
 UW’s World Series is well known for bringing the most sought after international companies to the Meany Hall stage, and this weekend was no exception. Though Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet is an American company, this seems to be true in little more than location (they’re based in New York City), because it features a cast of international dancers, a foreign director, and many prominent international choreographers. Each of the three pieces presented this weekend created their own distinctive worlds, showcasing both the stunning capability of the entire troupe and a great array of choreographic themes.  
The program opened with Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter’s Violet Kid, a pulsing hypnotic work created for the company in 2011. The company stands in a line across the stage, spotlights on each individual, making it seem as if they’re being examined or interrogated. A disembodied voice booms how it should “do more and talk less,” and “find something real rather than surreal,” becoming more and more agitated until the stage blacks out and reveals the next image: a man holding his hand in the shape of a gun at the back of another’s head. A sense of dread seeps in when the voice says “that’s good, that’s better,” as if soothed by the sight, a twisted welcome into this bleak world. The piece rises and falls as the dancers slink in and out the dark recesses at the corners of the stage. They sometimes band together, almost cult-like, and alternately lash out of the shifting groups, often convulsing as if on electroshock therapy. A sense of struggle and tension, whether against inner or outer demons, pervades. Shechter’s unique movement vocabulary features shuffles, hunched shoulders, and transitions in and out of the floor, all smooth as quicksilver. Loping steps have an animalistic feel, but swift partnering sections depict very human power struggles: submissive females manipulated by controlling men. Traces of rituals also emerge, the group shuffles in circles, wagging their fingers and continually stomping their feet. One image repeats itself several times: a teeming mass of bodies writhing in different directions, a vision of the perpetual human struggle. The movement stays compelling throughout, though it seems to repeat the same concepts with only slight variations. Shechter’s work is so immersive it nearly bowls the viewer over; the impact is felt viscerally not just cerebrally.

Alexander Ekman’s Tuplet
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman’s work, Tuplet, offered a light-hearted palate cleanser to Shechter’s heavier themes. A thorough exploration of rhythm, the piece utilized six dancers to contemplate how rhythm is made, as well as its necessity and ubiquity in life. The work is filled with visual gags; in one section a silhouetted dancer moved across a white background while a voice “narrated” his movement. He became a human onomatopoeia, his body perfectly matching each “swoosh,” “pop,” and “swish” uttered. Ekman’s use of movement corresponding to spoken words bordered on excessive, but had enough variation to stay interesting. Set pieces were used to particular effect as well: six stark white panels of marley became a giant keyboard, each lit up on a different beat; individual stages for each dancer; a skirt for one woman; and later, a runway for some serious strutting.

The evening ended on a quieter, but no less impressive note. Crystal Pite (a Vancouver-based choreographer whose company Kidd Pivot recently performed their Tempest Replica to great acclaim at On the Boards) presented Grace Engine, a work created for CedarLake earlier this year. Pite aimed to depict the “human experience as moments along a timeline,” and, to this end, moments overlapped as if one was a memory of another and brief glimpses of narratives appeared, though never connected in one arc. The narratives included a couple tangled in an anguish-riddled duet, a man running to either catch or outstrip a train, and two women in an aggressive power struggle. A sense of time’s inevitability was reinforced by the sound of rushing trains, and a continuous line that dancers unsuccessfully tried to extricate themselves from. Pite’s movement language is mesmerizing, filled with effortless partnering, arching cascades to the floor, and endlessly floating turns, but the work seems to lose momentum toward the end. Though quite beautiful, Grace Engine ended the program with less dynamism and punch than expected.  

Crystal Pite’s Grace Engine
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
The lighting and technical elements throughout the performance deserve special mention. All three pieces were lit impeccably, whether it was the sooty alleyways of Shechter’s, the bright noisemakers of Ekman’s, or the stark fluorescent bulbs used in Pite’s. As a whole, the dancing was incredible. A troupe of dancers this skilled and versatile is a sight to behold, and the repertory presented seemed to both stretch and showcase their skills. Hopefully CedarLake’s next stop in Seattle will be sooner rather than later.