territory: Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet at Jacob’s
Lake Contemporary Ballet
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.”
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.
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
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.