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Dance review: Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet at UCLA's Royce Hall

May 9, 2010 |  4:12 pm

Getprev-20  It was as if a colony of lonely, remote Edward Hopper figures had come to life, all twitchy, slithery and hauntingly beautiful.  Welcome to the universe of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the Flemish-Moroccan choreographer whose “Orbo Novo” (New World) was given its Los Angeles premiere Friday at UCLA's Royce Hall by Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet.  (Saturday's program was a mixed bill.)

A star in Europe, Cherkaoui made the 75-minute work for the New York-based troupe, his first for an American company, whose 15 dancers not only owned the intricately athletic moves but also breathed a kind of spectral life into them.  Whether squirming on the floor in strangely contorted neck stands or, feet rooted firmly to the stage, undulating from the waist like delicate reeds bending in the wind, the performers proved plucky guides to a daring kinetic landscape.

The work was inspired by Jill Bolte Taylor's memoir, “My Stroke of Insight,” which documented the neuroanatomist's own stroke.  Thus were the dancers speaking Taylor's words (“My spirit soared free like a great whale gliding through the sea of silent euphoria”), while they physically embodied brain waves and misfiring synapses, with a nod, perhaps, to the double helix:  rubbery splayed limbs; über-arched backs; ever-rippling torsos.

But most dancers cannot act, and flat voices ruled.  Projected text would have been preferable, as this Mr. Rogers-like lesson on dual brain function -- balance versus wavering, isolation against community, control or chaos -- took up too much of an otherwise stunning work.

Enhancing the outer narrative, Cherkaoui fashioned forceful scenarios by dint of Alexander Dodge's quartet of 12-foot tall movable panels, manipulated by the dancers.  Variously resembling a prison, an apartment complex (think Hitchcock's “Rear Window”), or even the twin towers, the lattice-work jungle gym provided a slew of movement opportunities.

By climbing on and over the grid, as well as affixing themselves to the unit, or fantastically squeezing through the rust-colored structure in its varying permutations, the dancers created intriguing tableaux.  Arms and heads appeared dislocated; hanging bodies evoked the primeval or the capricious.  Metaphorically, however, it was more about entrapment -- being stuck -- in the mind, the body, society.

Happily, Cherkaoui allowed the body to triumph, especially in the brilliantly executed solos, duets and unisons that punctuated the work.  Acacia Schachte was all dying-swan arms with Jell-O-like knees.  Jason Kittelberger's one-arm handstands and flips morphed into collapse-and-recover motifs.  Manuel Vignoulle was a hurricane of twisting turns and neo-pretzel antics. Matthew Rich and Golan Yosef turned a shock and awe quake-fest into a dance of desire.

Less successful was Szymon Brzóska's overwrought score, performed by the Mosaic String Quartet and pianist Aaron Wunsch (heard on tape).  No Arvo Pärt, the composer veered into the mawkish and manipulative.  Isabelle Lhoas' dreary costumes, including long skirts out of Amish country and vests and workaday pants for the men, were more like sartorial shrouds, covering the glorious bodies instead of revealing them.

     But given the bipolarity of the brain, invention dominated, with kudos to Cedar Lake artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer and his exquisite, indefatigable dancers.  Not so much a new world as a warren of possibilities, this quasi-dreamland compelled.

-- Victoria Looseleaf

Above: Cedar Lake dancers at Royce Hall. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times