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Experiencing Cedar Lake Contemporary Dance, a UW World Series Treat

December 14, 2012
Grace Engine 1 - sourced Ilona Idlis

Grace Engine. Courtesy of cedarlakedance.com.

The darkened stage rumbles awake. As the tension builds, an abrupt flash of light reveals the night’s performers. Cedar Lake’s dancers stand in a rigid line formation, staring out into Meany Hall’s packed auditorium. Their stillness—adorned with little but street clothes and a bare set—confuses expectations, denying the audience the familiarity of a typical ballet performance.

A male voice breaks the silence: “Do I talk too much? A good kid is a quiet kid…Maybe if I didn’t talk so much, I’d have more friends…”

The narrator’s hypothetical plunges the floor into chaos. The aligned 16 scatter, reappearing in violent clutches from curtained corners. Their bodies huddle together, grasping at synchronicity. The return of thundering drums compels the group to march. Knees kicked high, heads bowed low, the dancers turn and snap their fingers in the air, as if submitting to the unknown authority.

But a select few are ousted from that unity, seemingly trapped by squares of harsh stage light. The solitary dancers convulse unnaturally, drawing the audience’s eye. Limbs buckle and spasm with such a convincing involuntary air, that one cannot help but be fascinated by the muscle control of their owners. As these outliers succumb to seizure, the marchers freeze and look above, their hands extended in expectant rapture. But the ceiling returns nothing but a brief silence, giving one time to ponder the identity of the dancers’ cruel puppeteer. Then the quizzical moment of calm reverts to turbulent motion and the undefined struggle continues.

Violet Kid. Courtesy of cedarlakedance.com. sourced Ilona Idlis

Violet Kid. Courtesy of cedarlakedance.com.

“Violet Kid” concludes as it began—in ambiguity—but the audience response has no uncertainty. A standing ovation greets the finale of the forty minute performance—the first of three acts in Cedar Lake’s current contemporary ballet repertoire (Tuplet and Grace Engine follow suit). If not for clarity of message, the company earns plenty of praise for the mind-blowing athleticism and stamina of its dancers.

Elizabeth Patrick says the vagaries of the performance are intended.

“It’s up to interpretation,” the company manager explained. “We want everyone to bring to the piece their own background, their own feelings, their own emotions and have that be invoked so they come away with a personal connection. As opposed to saying, this is Romeo and Juliet.”

According to the piece’s creator, Hofesh Shechter, chaos is indeed the message of “Violet Kid,” not just its method. Unending struggle is certainly something the Israeli choreographer would be familiar with. But one needn’t travel to the Middle East to feel the performance’s relevance. Struck by Hurricane Sandy just two weeks before its UW World Series debut, the New York-based dance company didn’t need a stage to explore chaos. In fact, it had just physically lost theirs.

Grace Engine. Courtesy of cedarlakedance.com. sourced Ilona Idlis

Grace Engine. Courtesy of cedarlakedance.com.

“We weren’t expecting to get flood waters,” Patrick recalled. “We didn’t have a real chance to get in there to prepare for it.”

So when Sandy submerged Cedar Lake’s studio in three feet of salt water, the damage was extensive. The sprung floor was gone. The video equipment was damaged. Most importantly, the dancers were robbed of a place to practice days before their Seattle tour. The loss of New York City’s public transit only exacerbated the problem.

“It took a full real week for us to get together again to see what had happened and gather how we’re going to find a rehearsal space, and just how to prepare for this show,” she said. “Since Sandy hit, we’ve been displaced. Hopefully that didn’t show in our production.”

As intended, none of the company’s real-life hardships could be perceived at Friday’s public performance. But a sneak peak at Cedar Lake’s private class and rehearsal the next day revealed a different side to Sandy’s aftermath—well-practiced adaptability.

For Saturday’s lesson, the dancers transformed Meany’s main stage into a home away from (drowned) home. Ballet barres, yoga mats and foam noodles were arranged about the space. Swathed in every possible manner of yoga pant, the previous night’s acrobats sprawled on the floor—stretching, chatting, texting—in anticipation of their teacher’s arrival. Comfortably reclined, dancer Matthew Rich advised recent addition Guillaume Quéau on the particulars of a true Big Apple experience, studio displacement notwithstanding.

Grace Engine (60 second clip) from Dave Rogge on Vimeo.

“You couldn’t possibly leave New York without buying something from Barney’s,” he added with a gregarious laugh, eliciting a smile from the new Frenchman. Cedar Lake prides itself on its international composition. Dancers and choreographers alike are sourced from all corners of the world, resulting in an artists’ melting pot.

It’s no surprise then that the company’s Ballet Master is Alexandra Damiani, a 15-year career French soloist turned sought-after instructor. Most of the waiting dancers assumed en barre when she took center stage. A few continued tending to their muscles with warm-up handstands and flexibility-testing contortions. But when the longing notes of a violin markd the beginning of Damiani’s instructions, no amount of classroom informality could mask the dancers’ professionalism and talent.

Damiani’s demonstrations are lightening quick. Typically, she rattles off the desired footwork only once and then resumes her observation. Yet, the dancers match her request instantly. Whether the soundtrack is a classic waltz or Queen’s “Under Pressure,” the class performs any exercise in perfect rhythm with the tune. Though traditional ballet moves are hardly used in Cedar Lake’s modern dance performances, Damiani’s lesson leaves no doubt the company’s dancers have mastered the art form.

While these moves seemed effortless, Cedar Lake’s full return to its New York City studio won’t be. Repairing Sandy’s impact will take time and creative restructuring. Luckily, the company has talent and resilience in ample supply.

“We were very, very excited to come here,” Patrick concluded. “[Now] we’re going back home to start and continue to pick up the pieces. We’re a production and the show must go on.”

Tuplet. Courtesy of cedarlakedance.com. sourced Ilona Idlis

Tuplet. Courtesy of cedarlakedance.com.

 For more on Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet—including photos and video snippets of the company’s Seattle roster—please visit cedarlakedance.com.

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