Dancers without borders
A New York company's French director throws away the map.
“I don’t try to showcase European talent. I’m trying to showcase talent, period,” says Benoit-Swan Pouffer, artistic director since 2005 of the NYC-based Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. “When I approach [Belgian choreographer] Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui or [Israeli] Ohad Naharin to make work for us, it’s because what they do truly moves me,” he says. “I make my choices on a personal level.” His remarks refer not only to the choreographers he chooses, but the company performers as well. The 16 dancers of CLCB represent seven countries, making it a truly international operation.
The program CLCB brings to the Auditorium Theatre Saturday 14 is representative of Pouffer’s borderless perspective. It features works by choreographers Didy Veldman, based in Holland, and Jo Strømgren, who works out of Norway. Both are well-known across the pond but rarely commissioned in the U.S.; Canadian artist Crystal Pite may be a bit more familiar to local dance fans: Nederlands Dans Theater performed one of her pieces at the Auditorium last June. All three artists are at the forefront of concert dance’s evolution.
In Veldman’s complex frame of view, everyday conflicts and failures are blown out to operatic proportions. In past creations, Veldman deployed a keen sense of humor with giddy joy; in frame it becomes disturbing: In one scene of the dance, a blank-faced man is left lonely while a party rages next door. The partygoers twist and exaggerate their facial expressions and gestures into a scene worthy of Edvard Munch. In another scene, a couple’s fight would, in real time, be a horrifying episode of anger and abuse, but in slow-motion it becomes a stunning duet attended by a third dancer, who drily sprinkles the violence with confetti.
However, Veldman’s Lynchian drama has little in common with Strømgren’s purely physical choreography. In Strømgren’s Sunday, Again, set to various pieces of music by Bach, dancers running across the stage don’t stop when they reach another body—they simply jog up it until they’re standing on their partner’s shoulders. The ensemble breaks up into sub-dances that are wiped on and off the floor by a group pacing back and forth like a walking wall.
Meanwhile, Pite’s work is pitched between Veldman’s and Strømgren’s: Pieces like The Second Person, seen here in June, and The Stolen Show (a creation for Montreal’s BJM Danse that turned Pouffer on to her work) are full of intricate geometry and quick manipulations, often in service of poetic narratives. Twosomes are a particular strength of Pite’s, which should make Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue a standout.
This diversity of style is reflected in the CLCB dancers themselves. Top-tier companies often resort to shopping for artists who share the same training and body type, aiming for a trademark look. It also makes the process of casting more flexible. But Pouffer says organizations hiring for homogeneity are missing the point: “Cookie-cutter dancers don’t appeal to me. What happens when there are differences between the dancers is you end up noticing everyone more.”
For Pouffer, heterogeneity of appearance connects directly to the universality of dance as a language. “It doesn’t matter if you’re from Korea or Japan or America or wherever—we all have a body and, in my company, how we use them is how we relate to one another,” he says. “Seeing all these different backgrounds onstage, dancing together, is an image that can really pull down barriers.”
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet brings its international style to the Auditorium Theatre Saturday 14 and Sunday 15.