Live Ballet: Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet at Royce Hall

By Jane Rosenberg

The UCLA Dance department and dance lovers from all over Los Angeles turned out Friday night at Royce Hall for the first of two UCLA Live performances by the singular Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet.  With versatile dancers who are as comfortable en pointe as they are perched flat footed on tabletops, the Cedar Lake ensemble of sixteen dancers executed the three evening’s offerings with arresting style.

On a bare set, white paper helixes suspended above them, the dancers proved their mettle in Regina van Berkel’s poetic ballet, Simply Marvel. Nowhere else was their versatility more in evidence, as when elegant classical line merged and morphed into modernist gesture.  Accompanied by a recording of solo piano, the first variation offered more posing than dancing and a series of disconnected, seemingly chaotic patterns. Rather than the music propelling the dance forward, it created a mood of contemplation, interrupted by sudden outbursts of movement that worked in juxtaposition to the score.

When the piano concluded and the violin took up one of Paganini’s Variations, the mood changed and the piece took off.  Partnerings became compelling; patterns gained in interest and complexity; and humor was injected into the proceedings.  There was a freshness and vibrancy to the dancing, particularly in the lovely lyricism of Soojin Choi.  The insouciant pseudo-tutus on the ballerinas and peplum vests on the male dancers abetted the humor, reminding me of a Commedia dell’Arte cast of characters and their childlike antics.

Echoing footsteps, the roar of traffic and trains, relentlessly coming and going, provided the soundtrack for Crystal Pite’s Grace Engine.  With Jim French’s stark lighting, she has created a dystopian universe set in a black void with a single neon strip of light to illuminate the chaos on stage.  This dance/drama is an apocalyptic vision of man trying to cope in a hostile world. Left to crawl, hobble, and struggle against an invisible crowd, a single male dancer opened the drama.  More frightened characters entered, all dressed in dull business attire, all at the mercy of forces beyond their control.  They appeared to be faceless, nameless workers, toiling in a subterranean world, attacked by a row of flashing floodlights that suggested approaching subway trains.  Running away from pursuers or facing off in lines approximating a gang war or crazed sporting event, they found no relief from their crippling anxiety.

All this was admirably conveyed with movement, sound, and light; undercut when the dancers occasionally contorted their faces into screaming masks of pain – then the piece became too literal minded and lost some of its power.  In an all male pas de quatre, the dancers effectively segued from classical form to the rigorous movement-vocabularly of Pite.  Two pas des deux, one all female, offered the only moments of real human contact, but true to Pite’s vision, they were moments of shared pain, devoid of warmth or eroticism.  In another potent sequence, the dancers, their arms connected, formed an anguished parade, marching without volition into an indifferent world.

Concluding the program was Alexander Ekman’s Hubbub, a comical romp, set in a rehearsal hall where an omniscient narrator provided the voice-over for the doings of the dancers.  Alternately teasing the audience or satirizing the art of contemporary performance, the narrator unfortunately overpowered the proceedings.  The dance had humor and charm, but the drone of the overly long voice-over distracted.  A few choice comments would have sufficed, and then, the joke understood, we could be left in peace to appreciate Ekman’s choreography.

Toppled chairs and bodies in varying states of crooked repose opened the piece. The ensemble put us through the paces of ballet basics, ending ultimately in invented, comic positions.  In one inspired section, the dancers’ breaths grew louder and louder until its rhythms sounded like a locomotive, and the performers became engines of their own creation as they heaved and rocked in synchronization.  In another charming variation, a couple rehearsed a dance, accompanied by a background track of their internal thoughts – clipped choreographic directions or bemused commentary on their states of mind.  This created an hilarious push and pull of comic brilliance – a kind of Annie Hall/Alvie Singer delight, danced effectively by Nickemil Concepcion and Harumi Terayama.

All and all a provocative and fascinating night of dance provided by the exhilarating Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet.

* * * * * *
Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets and SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children. 

Jane has also just published “The Story of La Boheme,”  an online flip book, in cooperation with the Los Angeles Opera,  based on the story and the art from “La Boheme” in her book, “Sing Me A Story.”

Photo by Francois Rousseau courtesy of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet.

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