A man in a suit enters the performance space, the sound of his footsteps magnified along with the steady droning of distant traffic. A row of ground-level headlights suddenly illuminates across the back of the stage, revealing the silhouette of the dancer’s body. As if being thrust backwards by an invisible moving train, the dancer convulses with limbs thrashing violently and collapses to the floor in a lifeless heap. Such an ominous scene provides the dramatic introduction to the diverse repertoire performed by Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet at Jacob’s Pillow.
The opening piece, Grace Engine, is as much social commentary as it is an experiment with physical movement. The full ensemble of 16 dancers emerges from both sides of the stage, dressed in identical navy-blue suits and loose button-down shirts. The dim lighting and pulsing soundtrack evoke an underground subway system, teeming with disillusioned human life.
Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite contrasts pedestrian gestures with animalistic moves, hands clawing and torsos tearing through space. Slithering movements and rapid flicking limbs turn the ensemble into a pack of wolves looking for prey or an ant colony frantically maintaining their habitat.
However, there are distinctly human episodes, both fearful and intimate. Several times throughout the piece, the ensemble forms a single line across the stage, shoulders hunched and staggering forward as if in a prison chain gang. Echoing the rhythmic sound of cranking gears, the bodies appear controlled and depleted. At various times a single dancer breaks from the mold, stretching outward with mouth agape in a silent scream, only to be dragged back into formation.
Despite the oppressive tone of the piece, there are moments of tenderness and connection. A series of duets and trios are interspersed, in which the dancers cradle each others’ exhausted limbs or subtly place one’s palm on another’s forehead. At one point, two female dancers lean dependently against each other, gradually rising to their feet with their chins nestled between each other’s neck and shoulder.
Not only does Pike’s choreography touch on deeply engrained human narratives; she also employs methods of movement that reflect various cinematic techniques; the audience is taken on a journey that is part film noir part 1940’s crime fiction. The film technique of “dropping frames” is especially compelling, as the dancers’ bodies jolt and stutter as if backlit by a strobe light.
While Pike’s piece exposes the perils of corporate culture and our individual tendencies toward mob mentality, the following work by Norwegian choreographer Alexander Ekman frees both the dancer and audience to be playful and whimsical, recapturing the improvisational nature of our own bodies in space.
Ekman’s work offers much-needed comic relief and a reflection on the topic of rhythm. The mixed-media performance involves projected images of street-side percussion ensembles as well as audio recordings of the dancers’ own vocal sound effects.
A highlight of the piece includes six dancers standing at the end of the stage, each positioned on a white rubber mat. Each dancer has a signature move corresponding to their name, which is played on an audio loop. The recording seems to suddenly skip, repeating the name of one dancer as his body hiccups recklessly like a drunken marionette.
The closing piece, Necessity, Again, seems to combine the sensibilities of both Pite and Ekman, utilizing a narrative arc that is both vaudevillian and deeply tragic. Norwegian choreographer Jo Strømgren develops a World War II-era scene with long ropes strung across the stage and sheets of crumbled paper dangling haphazardly with clothes pins. The setting depicts the hidden pockets of life that occur between dilapidated apartment buildings, with laundry lines cascading between broken windows.
The quirky movements of the dancers are contrasted with the monotone recordings of French philosopher Jacques Derrida and his intellectual musings on the topic of necessity. Throughout the piece is a conversation between that which is emotional and rational, between chaos and control.
Whether the company draws on its sheer athleticism or develops its more theatrical qualities, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet is endlessly versatile–and the ensemble’s work is refreshingly honest and unafraid of taking risks.