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Over-familiar territory: Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet at Jacob’s Pillow.

Photo: Karli Cadel

Brain Drained

By French Clements

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet

Jacob’s Pillow, Ted Shawn Theatre, Becket, Mass., July 12

Occasionally you’re reminded why it’s good to keep expectations low. At Jacob’s Pillow in 2007, the Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve showed a mind-blowing double bill. It paired a feather-light ballet by Saburo Teshigawara with Loin, a 2005 dance by the Belgian-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. In contrast to Teshigawara’s futuristic, nearly silent chilliness, Loin—French for “far”—was romantic and laugh-out-loud funny, using the touring dance company, the one performing right there, as a metaphor for cultural dislocation and xenophobia. Cherkaoui’s sinuous, intricate movement was a revelation, and the man himself seemed to merge the body of Gumby with (as we learned from texts of his, recited by dancers of many nations) the mind of, I don’t know, Lacan or somebody. In the intervening years, Cherkaoui has been a topic of that mysterious thing, “buzz.”

So, sitting down for one of the premiere performances of Cherkaoui’s Orbo Novo, performed by one of America’s best-equipped dance companies, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, I tried not to let the past egg on my expectations. (Nancy Walton Laurie, of Wal-Mart money, is a founder and backer.) Alas, the piece, like too much of Cedar Lake’s repertory, is one of those for which certain phrases exist, phrases like “half baked” and “let’s spend another three months in the studio.”

Orbo Novo has several outstanding traits: sumptuous sets and costumes, belly-laugh speeches by its dancers, alienation and togetherness in balance, and always those cursive steps. But these elements, on their own and in sum, felt much too familiar, as if Orbo Novo, more than merely being created by the same artist who made Loin, were a companion piece to its predecessor. The only new and unfamiliar element was a spectacular, three-dimensional set of metal gridwork. Wait, even the complete production of Loin had a lacy, Moorish-style metal screen at the stage’s rear. So Orbo Novo never convinced me of its own, stand-alone message. Though I was moved to recall the greatness, and then maybe the not-so-greatness, of Loin.

Orbo Novo finds its inspiration in the 2006 book My Stroke of Insight by the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor. She recounts the experience of her stroke from her brain-scientist’s brain’s perspective. It’s a lot of science-y abstraction for one dance to make real. But for the first third of Orbo Novo, the transition works like a charm, plumbing this soul’s dark night with humor and pathos. (Early in the stroke’s ravages, Taylor is gazing at her hands and her body; she remembers thinking then, “Whoa, I’m a weird-looking thing!” This was hilarious. She also reported thinking, “I’m a very busy woman, I don’t have time for a stroke!”) These early parts of Orbo Novo are not really danced so much as spoken, in sentences drawn, with only a little condensing it seems, from Taylor’s book. It seems to be Cherkaoui’s style to use text in a number of languages, maintaining the linguistic traits of international dancers, and incorporating humankind’s usual stutters and pauses into the set text. When the dancers both move in Cherkaoui’s crazy way and speak in Taylor’s brain-science terminology, it’s often astounding, as if bodies couldn’t possibly do something this complicated. In the dance, anywhere from one performer to six or seven reports Taylor’s changing thought process: her surprise at not being able to move or think clearly; and her excitement that she gets to live her research so fully; and her profound bliss as the logical side of her brain falls away in what seems like Club Med for the other side, cruising between conscious epiphanies and senseless ignorance of anything at all. Imagine, being able to describe the exact workings of your own demise! For Taylor, this process lasted about four hours, and, though it took eight years, she made a full recovery.

The downfall of Orbo Novo is that, for its latter two-thirds, those initial four hours seem to be interpreted in real time. Once Cherkaoui moves from the humor and texture of Taylor’s hyper-aware intellect into his own contributions, the piece’s energy drains away into a desert of dry movement and even drier chamber music, by the Polish composer Szymon Brzóska and played live by the Mosaic String Quartet. For some time, that enormous, collapsible set piece keeps things interesting, or at least theoretically dangerous, with dancers climbing 20 feet in the air and hanging off by a well-placed limb. The set, and the way it divides the stage and the dancers, is a rich metaphor for the many facets of Taylor’s story. We see how mental divisions enforce physical distress, and how the body’s mortal curves grow overwhelmed by the cold, brutal logic of illness.

Some other things happened between the middle of Orbo Novo and its end, but soon enough I didn’t care about any of it. By the work’s end, the metal grid has been configured into two cubes—the two lobes of the brain, it’s obvious—that ultimately get pushed together by dancers inside each half to make a whole brain again. The dancers then leave these united hemispheres, save one guy, who struggles to push through a square hole without success. In the end, in a Herculean effort, he separates that section with himself still inside it, and pushes his way offstage, caged. With the dance finished, I happily found it much easier to stand, and walk, and leave the theater.

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