By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.
Going out on a limb is one thing; allying that with solid technique is another. When New York’s critically revered Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet hits the boards at the Adelaide Festival in March, classical ballet will be brand new once more.
“It’s a risk,” she says, with a thoroughly intact French accent. “That’s one of the things about the company. We let choreographers take a risk with style or content. And through that, our dancers can take another type of risk.”
That the French voice belongs to the Artistic Director of one of America’s most innovative dance companies says a lot about the creative palette of New York based Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. Indeed, Alexandra Damiani is typical of the company, which has drawn both talent and influence from across the dance universe. Having arrived in NY twenty years ago on a nine month ballet scholarship from her native France, Damiani started getting roles and “y’know, fell in love and life took over.”
Two decades later and that French teenager is now at the helm of a US company with a clear mission to stretch the limits, whilst staying true to the classic principles of Western dance: namely, ballet technique. It’s not simply that the term ‘contemporary ballet’ in-builds the idea but rather that the company’s roster of sixteen dancers makes such collisions possible and, perhaps, inevitable.
“They have a physicality that is very pronounced and a kind of New York energy, even though they come from all over the world,” Damiani observes. “They say that your environment very much inspires you and creates you and because we work in New York there is something of that about us.”
Founded in 2003 by Walmart heir Nancy Walton Laurie, Cedar Lake have always looked to the new and invigorating, commissioning and staging work from the world’s leading choreographers, including Crystal Pite, Hofesh Shechter, Jiří Kylián and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, all of whom the company will feature when they make their Australian debut at the 2015 Adelaide Festival.
According to Damiani, “If you say that the company is like a beautiful art gallery then there is a lot of modern art in our repertoire. For Cedar Lake, and very much for me too, the idea of contemporary is that it is the creation of new works, of conveying the sense of what’s happening now. Hofesh Schechter is a perfect example of that.”
Indeed, Schechter’s brooding, percussive short work Violet Kid will be staged in Adelaide as part of the company’s festival season, where they will present both a triple bill and a full length work.
Yet, drawing it all together is the company’s ballet core. “We still do class every morning,” Damiani says proudly. “Ballet is still the foundation.”
Having been with the company ten years, Damiani has witnessed the cycles of the constantly shifting contemporary classical chasm. “When the company was founded the girls were dancing on pointe shoes but there was a real desire to grasp what was happening now. But at the same time there was this strong appreciation of ballet technique. So y’know, we wanted to dance in our bare feet but also in pointe shoes. Now I would say we have come back a little to the pointe shoes but with the groundedness and physicality of contemporary dancers.”
Violet Kid perhaps typifies the relationship. As Damiani notes, “The work Hofesh [Schechter] created for us is very dark. Very dark. It has his signature style and composition and even the lighting is dark. But it’s exquisite. It works really well with the stature of our dancers.”
However, it is with the full length Orbo Novo that Cedar Lake will be stretching their wings furthest. Created by Flemish choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and based on the memoir of Jill Bolte Taylor, (the famed neuroanatomist who suffered a stroke and then wrote about her recovery), the work is described as being “very fluid, like the dancers have no spine.”
Alexandra Damiani is clearly enamoured of the challenges inherent in presenting complex, full length, brand new works to audiences. “What’s wonderful about that is that you go into one universe,” she waxes. “It’s a little bit more demanding for the audience but it’s so rewarding; especially nowadays when everyone wants just a quick taste of everything.”
That may sound odd coming from someone living and working amidst the frenetic whirl of New York; but Damiani just laughs off the apparent contradiction, recalling how she first came to love the Big Apple. “I really connected with New York and that sense of, in a corny way, the American Dream,” she explains. “Y’know, that dream where everything is possible.”
To some degree, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet also encapsulates that dream. With risk taking creativity written into their constitution, they have brought the technical rigour of ballet into a more rewarding partnership with the athleticism and emotional grunt of contemporary dance. Not to mention the company’s much acclaimed signature use of multimedia elements.
As Alexandra Damiani succinctly concludes, “I suppose that what we want to do is to create new work using the new tools but with a classically trained eye.”
Photo (top): Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in 3 Violet Kid. Photo by Sharen Bradford.