Ballet Electrified

September 26, 2010

Two dancers rehearse under the skylight in Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s lofty studios as Alexander Ekman looks on. The Swedish choreographer is creating a duet. As he watches, Harumi Terayama, a Juilliard graduate, and Nickemil Concepcion, who previously danced with Ballet Tech, embellish a phrase or two with each pass at the choreography, moving with the pliancy, muscularity and daring that typifies Cedar Lake. It’s dancers like these who have lured some of today’s most sought-after choreographers to work with the company.

When Cedar Lake launched in 2003, few could have predicted how quickly its influence would be felt. Founded by Nancy Walton Laurie—niece of Sam Walton of Walmart fame—some initially saw Cedar Lake as a vanity project. Laurie had been a patron of dance in her hometown of St. Louis, but her newness to New York’s dance scene, combined with Cedar Lake’s sleek state-of-the-art headquarters near the city’s newly restored High Line, made critics doubt its artistic integ­rity. “I think we had to pay our dues,” says 36-year-old artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer, who joined in 2005.

The company has steadily gained credibility. Pouffer’s artistic direction has evolved, and the dancers have proved major assets. “They’re very strong technically, very physical,” notes Ekman. He is not alone in his admiration. “Cedar Lake has a very fresh, talented group of dancers,” says English choreographer Hofesh Shechter. “The company also allows a good period of time to create the work.” Dancers too have come to look at Cedar Lake as a smart option. The company’s annual 48-week contract is far longer than those of many traditional ballet companies. “We recently had an audition with almost 250 women,” says Pouffer. The company currently numbers 15, with seven women and eight men.

What makes a dancer potential Cedar Lake material? “Have a healthy relationship with ballet,” says ballet mistress Alexandra Damiani. “It’s our foundation. We also look at a dancer’s personality, creativity, their hunger to dance and create.” Cedar Lake’s dancers have a rich range of ballet training that includes Canada’s National Ballet School and The Boston Conservatory. Some are choreographers themselves. The company’s rigorous daily technique class, led by Damiani, helps pull the dancers together stylistically.

Many observers mark the 2007 staging of Ohan Narharin’s Decadance as the company’s turning point. The choreographer also taught classes in his signature Gaga technique, which requires that dancers work with the studio mirrors covered, an experience many describe as liberating. While the Cedar Lake repertoire varies greatly, one common thread is a full-out visceral style. Last year, the company commissioned Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to create Orbo Novo, a full-length work, for the company’s Joyce Theater debut. Performing diverging styles can be daunting, but also tremendously appealing. “It’s really a personal exploration for the dancers,” says Damiani.

Cedar Lake has two New York seasons a year, plus one or more additional pieces by Pouffer. The company has expanded its touring schedule, which this season includes at least 15 dates in the U.S. and Europe. It has also established an annual residency program at UCLA in California. This fall’s Joyce Theater run includes new works by Ekman, Jacopo Godani and Shechter, plus pieces now in the repertoire by Jo Strømgren and Didy Veldman.

Creating an evening’s program comes with certain risks. “I know that you can fail,” says Pouffer, himself a former dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Complexions, among other companies. “I didn’t want Cedar Lake to become another Ailey, but I liked working with different choreographers there because it made me a more complex dancer.”

Pouffer has choreographed four dances for Cedar Lake. These casual, site-specific performances can incorporate elements from another genre, say fashion or photography. The dancers improvise between set cues and mix with the audience, which is encouraged to move about.

Pouffer also created dances for the upcoming Universal film The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon, due to be released this coming spring. Co-star Emily Blunt worked with Pouffer to portray a Cedar Lake dancer. It is a measure of how much Cedar Lake has arrived that the director, George Nolfi, felt that the company had the requisite edginess, chic and cool to give the heroine credentials in the screen version of the New York dance world. The company’s studio served as one location. Perhaps not so coincidentally, it sits between pristine galleries and old car repair shops—between the polished and the gritty. Like Cedar Lake itself.

Susan Yung is a New York dance writer and critic.

Ballet Paid Off

Some dancers know from the start they want a career in ballet. Not Jon Bond, pictured on the cover with Soojin Choi, a Cedar Lake dancer who recently returned to Korea. Bond had plans to become a triple threat. At 10, he began taking classes at Center Stage Dance Academy in Long Beach, California, and quickly succeeded on the competition circuit. He resisted ballet class, but both his mother and his dance teacher wanted him to develop strong technique. “They paid me to go,” he says. He stuck with it, grudgingly, while attending Orange County High School of the Arts. Looking back, Bond says ballet’s discipline helped him clean up his movement. “I was overly dramatic onstage,” he says. “My ballet teachers would say, ‘You’re dancing too hard.’ Ballet calmed that down a little.”

After graduation, Bond got an offer to join Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Dancing Through Barriers youth ensemble, and moved to New York. It was at DTH, he says, that he fell in love with ballet, through classes with former Berlin Opera Ballet star Eva Evdokimova. “Before, I thought ballet was repetitious,” he says. “But the imagery she used worked for me.” Port de bras, for instance, had given him trouble: “I just couldn’t connect my eyes with my arms,” he says. “She’d say, ‘Think about pushing clouds away and painting the air with your fingertips.’ I’m very visual and it clicked.” Now 23, Bond joined Cedar Lake after two years with DTH. The fit seems organic: The company can tap Bond’s flexible range of movement and the choreography offers constant challenges to a dancer with a voracious appetite for the new. “I get bored quickly,” Bond con­fesses. “I need to constantly be moving.” The ballet classes he resisted have wound up opening a door. “When I was younger, everyone told me I could work in L.A., but I belonged in New York doing concert dance,” he says. “Ballet was the foundation.” —Rachel F. Elson