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Flash Review Journal, 11-2: Dance Dream, War Nightmare
Cedar Rapids: Fast & Furious Dancing Brings Repertoire to Life; ABT at 'The Green Table'

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2005 Gus Solomons jr
Photography by Julie Lemberger

Doing Laps with Cedar Lake

NEW YORK -- A generous owner with a great love for dance has afforded artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer, a former member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the opportunity of a lifetime -- 20 top-notch dancers and a spanking new state-of-the-art studio and theater in New York's Chelsea neighborhood, in which to create dance art. Billionaire Nancy Laurie founded the company out of her infatuation with dance. Amen!

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet inaugurated its new space on October 24 with three new ballets, one each by Edwaard Liang, formerly of New York City Ballet, Complexions, and "Fosse"; Jodie Gates, who danced with New York's Joffrey, Pennsylvania Ballet, and Ballett Frankfurt; and Pouffer himself.

The theater's wide proscenium affords every one of the 200-odd seats an unobstructed view, but the seating is so close to the big stage, it's difficult to take in everything at once. And a lot is happening at all times. All three ballets feature unceasing streams of technically challenging modern ballet movement: stretchy, writhing torsos, high extensions, and quasi-symbolic gesturing, backed by highly sophisticated video and film projections. Indeed, the technical presentation is so eye-filling and the dancing so spectacular that you might momentarily forgive the choreographic lapses.

Liang's "This Mortal Coil" begins with sturdy, blond Kristen Elizabeth Weiser in a white bikini, dancing an urgent, if emotionally scattered solo. It's full of lunging, lurching steps and heavy emoting, but you can't fathom its intention. When the solo ends, the rear screen bursts with filmed images of Weiser hurtling through space in slow motion. Gradually, four men walking toward us are superimposed over her.

The four live men, Juan-Antonio Rodriguez, Nickemil Concepcion, Jason Kittelberger, and Jubal Battisti then enter and perform a brief passage, before Jessica Coleman Scott, Heather Hamilton, Jolene Baldini, and Shaun Boyle join them for a series of short push-me-pull-you duets. The men propel the women around in daring, swooping lifts, sliding second-positions, and endless leg extensions. Assorted music by Larry Beckett and Tim Buckley, Tan Dun, and Antonio Vivaldi accompany the frenetic action.

The movement is richly physical and visually clear and clean, but each section seems like a fragment of something bigger, because none of the brief sections reaches an emotional conclusion: the dancing just stops when the music does. At the end of the ballet, Weiser returns and crouches in the morning light from a projected window, indicating perhaps that everything we've just seen was happening in her imagination. But whose life was it anyway?
(From left) Jubal Battisti, Juan Rodriguez, and Jason Kittelberger of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in Jodie Gates's "Momentary Play." Julie Lemberger photo copyright 2005 Julie Lemberger.

Without a break comes Gates's "Momentary Play," in which nine people, dressed in white, flit among filmy white curtains that fall dramatically from above at precise musical moments to enclose squares of light the dancers are trapped in. It's equally startling when the dancers run into the curtains and sweep them offstage. Leading off is a fluent, sinewy solo by lean, muscular Gideon Poirier. Films of the dancers play on the fabric, as they continue dancing inside the curtained cubicles. Over the course of the piece, dancers shed garments, as they rush back and forth, down to leotards and shorts. Violist Leanne Darling plays Bach sonatas onstage to our left, and sound designer Stefano Zazzera works a console of electronic sounds opposite her.

After intermission comes Pouffer's "Seed," an ambitious work with a lively atmospheric and percussive score by Zazzera. As artistic director, Pouffer perhaps feels less need to be as constantly "entertaining" as his guest choreographers. His ballet modulates the constantly frantic pace and delves into a broader range of emotion, tempo, and dynamics.

Seven wall sections in forced perspective (set by Timothy R. Mackabee) ring the stage, providing a screen for projection designer Adam Larsen's elaborate films and animations that accompany the dancing. First we see Kittelberger, underwater, wearing headphones -- presumably in utero. He then appears, crouching in a downstage corner, wearing a knitted placenta, which unravels as he dances across the front in a tight, contorted solo.

This solo precedes a series of scenes that go from a large group section, identified in the program as "Death," to a love duet by Christopher Adams and Scott, backed by a panoramic projection of the 23rd street subway, to eight male field workers to a bunch of school children and back to Baldini in a "wet sweater," the female counterpart of Kittelberger's opening birth. As she hurls herself against various wall panels, her image appears on them. While the imposing segmented wall, skillfully lit by Jim French, gives the film images a wonderful sweep, its proximity to the dancing seems to push it into our laps; it feels claustrophobic.

The individual scenes are fascinating and beautifully danced by this sleek cast -- which includes in addition to those already mentioned Roderick George, Jessica Keller, Ebony Williams, Emaline Green, and Radoslaw Kokoszka -- but the logic of the sequence is elusive. I'm sure Pouffer could explain in detail how each scene contributes to his concept -- and did to his cast, who dance with utter conviction -- but to us uninformed viewers their arrangement seems arbitrary. Reworking of the scenario would give the work more emotional resonance in addition to its powerful visual impact.

The company's next New York City showings will be in late January. We'll be curious to see whether Cedar Lake's Utopian creative situation nurtures choreographic depth. Meanwhile, it's nice to see a group of such talented dancers treated to the kind of wages and benefits they so richly deserve while pursuing the dream. Now, aren't there any other dance fans with funds willing to challenge this model with competing ones of their own?


Evergreen: ABT reanimates Jooss

The fall season of the American Ballet Theatre at City Center gives us an opportunity to see a much more varied repertoire than the classic, three-act warhorses that will fill the seats of the vast Metropolitan Opera House during the eight weeks of the company's annual spring season. In the more intimate City Center, not only can you see the dancers' faces without a telescope, but the company can show more experimental, contemporary works.

This season, one of the highlights has been a revival of the modern dance classic "The Green Table" by German choreographer Kurt Jooss, which had its premiere in 1932 -- a welcome addition to the repertoire. Inspired by the Dance of Death and the aftermath of World War I, this "Dance of Death in Eight Scenes" captures searing emotional images with archetypal movement, and its political commentary is as timely now, 73 years later, as it was then.

The company rehearsed for six weeks with Anna Markard, Jooss's daughter, whose career is devoted to resetting her father's classic on companies around the world. The result is a vivid revival by a cast headed by Isaac Stappas as Death, the central figure originally danced by Jooss himself, and an ensemble that, seen Saturday, projected the stylistic sense of discovery of Jooss's original movement invention -- done, of course, with ABT's customary technical perfection.

The pantomimic derivation of the movements is apparent, but Jooss abstracted and composed it musically with recapitulating motifs in keeping with F.A. Cohen's two-piano score, which received a masterfully nuanced performance by Daniel Waite and David LaMarche, the conductor of the ABT orchestra. The geometric clarity of its Laban-based movement influence gives the choreography enduring vitality.

Section subtitles define the action: In "The Gentlemen in Black," ten politicians in vibrantly grotesque masks by Hermann Markard confer at the eponymous table, an expanse of green felt with a solid black base. Their robotic cordiality resonates with the claptrap we hear daily from our Washington, DC, politicians. Subsequently, "The Farewells" sees young men leaving their loved ones to go to war; "The Battle" shows soldiers fighting and dying and The Profiteer, looting the corpses, danced by Julio Bragao-Young with appropriate creepiness; "The Refugees" is a group of women mourning their loss and displacement, with Kelly Boyd as The Young Girl, Kristi Boone as The Woman, and Melissa Thomas as The Old Mother; in "The Brothel," the Profiteer cynically pairs up men and women.

The figure of Death is omnipresent, hovering at the fringes of the action or interceding to wrest away another victim. In a particularly moving passage a pair of lovers is rent apart by Death, who replaces the man (Kenneth Easter) as the two are about to embrace. In "The Aftermath" the characters parade like puppets, numbed by war. The final scene reprises the opening confab of the ten Gentlemen in Black, inured to the suffering of the real people in the world outside their hermetic conference room. How art does imitate life!


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