New York’s Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet was founded in 2003 by Nancy Laurie, heir to the Walmart empire. Its programmes often feature work by European choreographers and its influences range far and wide. Indeed, in this, their long-awaited UK debut, there’s not a pointe shoe in sight.
The opening piece was by a name already well known in London: Hofesh Shechter. Violet Kid is Shechter on familiar territory: there are huddled bodies, grounded movements, and a sense of youth in revolt. There’s a constant tension between a mood of frustration and one of quiet resignation as the 14-strong cast glide around the stage with speed and purpose, their turns crisp and fast. Their arms tell a different story, however; held up above their heads as if handcuffed – their hands seem to knock on an invisible wall. At various intervals this tension is punctured by scenes of anger, accompanied by an aggressive drum soundscape composed by Shechter himself.
While some parts of the piece illustrate precisely why Shechter came to prominence – in particular, the dazzling, complicated formations that come together just as quickly as they disperse – others are less effective. The first ‘big’ drum sequence, in which the entire cast rock their bodies and pump their fists in perfect unison under the bright lights, looked pop video slick; a series of fist fights in duet form felt equally out of place.
There was a strong sense of thematic connection between Crystal Pite’s Grace Engine and Violet Kid, almost as if we were looking at the same figures five years down the line, after they have lost the fire in their belly. The dancers, now clad in suits, display a similar sense of resignation to those in Violet Kid but, if not entirely embracing it, they are begrudgingly accepting their part in the rat race.
There’s a starker sense of inevitability to the piece. Jumps are big, uncontrolled affairs; heads are tilted at awkward angles. There’s also a backward gravitational pull; the performers fall backwards and get dragged backwards, their heads looking up as if crying for help.
In the final heart-wrenching duet between Jin Young Won and Acacia Schachte, they literally restrain and push down on one another with their hands and feet, as if demanding the other to “know your place”. The atmospheric opening involving the fall of one man turns out to be a forewarning. Bleak stuff.
Completing the mixed bill was Tuplet by Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman, who was briefed to “zoom in” on six dancers and their personalities. Cheeky, knowing and – a rare sight in dance, let alone contemporary dance – with a wicked sense of humour, Tuplet feels like an analysis of the rehearsal process mixed with a meditation on dance itself. Anyone who has worked with a choreographer or dance teacher will recognise each click, breath, whistle and mini melody that accompanies every small movement, which are constantly repeated, altered and developed.
A highlight is the middle section which is reminiscent of a Gap advert. In black waist coats and blue trousers, the dancers stand in line, each given a brief moment of glory under the spotlight. Sometimes it’s disco-style arm-waving, sometimes it’s hip hop, sometimes it’s full-on classical ballet. Then these turn into genuine moments of glory with a roll call of the dancers matched by a movement. Ebony Williams gives a feisty swish of the hip; Matthew Rich performs a hip hop “money” gesture. But Jonathan Bond steals the show with a high-camp body roll that, as if knowing the audience would lap it up, gets repeated over and over again, generating the sort of laughter that you might not expect from a Sadler’s Wells crowd.
The final section, set against grainy black-and-white footage of wartime musicians, sees the dancers in front tap out some impressive rhythms using their bodies: a nod to the timelessness of art, perhaps. Despite jarring with the rest of the piece, I was struck by what a fantastic sense of rhythm these dancers have. And therein lies the key to Cedar Lake’s mixed bill: the pieces may feel all over the place at times, but the abiding feeling you’re left with is one of awe at the skill on display.