Discipline Through “Decadance”

Dance Review: Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Ohad Naharin’s “Decadance”

(Photos by Richard B Goode)

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Last night, after a patchy dress rehearsal/opening to its winter season last Wednesday, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet presented a one-night-only reprise of their popular fall production of Ohad Naharin’s “Decadance.” The work is essentially a review of excerpts selected by Mr. Naharin from his catalogue ranging from 1992 through 2006. Mr. Naharin’s style and sensibility proved a much better canvas for the dancers of Cedar Lake to highlight their individual skills as movement technicians and all-around performers than did any of the works shown last week. This performance is fair evidence that the company could become a steady voice in the dance world, should its directors continue to commission work from choreographers of the same caliber as Ohad.

My complaint about Wednesday’s performance was mainly that all of the works suffered both in taste level and formal clarity. The muddle of high (and low) concept and formless exuberance seemed to discourage the company from taking the art of dance seriously, and, to the contrary, and more often than not, encouraged them to be more concerned with flashy self-expression than rigorous and disciplined articulation. Happily, Mr. Naharin’s work reigns in the former and depends ruthlessly on the latter: And still manages to be entertaining.

The opening moment is vivid and consistent with the aesthetic of intimidation that was so hauntingly effective in both other Naharin works I’ve seen (Batsheva’s “Mamootot” and “Three”, both presented at Brooklyn Academy of Music). All the dancers are dispersed on-stage, facing forward, gazing at the audience like they–and we–are simply animals; alert and caught in making the decision to either attack or move on.

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They stood with slightly awkward footing, arms engaged but to the sides, wearing bizarre (and wonderful) costumes by Rakafet Levy that turned their upper bodies into flesh-toned mannequin parts and left their legs mysteriously black, which then disappeared altogether as the dancers backed slowly upstage, making them eerie, legless sculptures that barked “Hee!…Ho!…” every fourth beat.

Next came a skillful, Renaissance-inspire duet set to Vivaldi’s “Stabat Mater.” Acacia Schachte and Jason Kittelberger made an engaging pair. Schachte is a dancer of balletic control combined with an intense, beautifully alien stage presence. Kittelberger, whose perhaps more intense gaze was so frightening in last week’s hideous “Symptoms of Development,” gave a moving performance and proved a steady and no less expressive partner.

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Five of the male dancers got a chance to flash dance during a mystical ceremony involving billowy white pants and a bucket filled with thick mud and water. The segment, though beautiful in ways, went on far too long, and was barely saved by a strategically non-sequitur cross of the stage by the striking Ebony Williams, clad entirely in red drag and hoisted on stilts; a corona of feathers framed her fierce, costumed face. decadance_ebonywilliams1.jpgShe would come back out only a few minutes later (after the men found their much needed resolution), strutting and dragging an extra-tall microphone behind her, planting herself center stage and lip syncing with cabaret-inspired exaggeration to “Gopher Mambo,” which is part Havana Nights, part Queen of the Night. Brava.

Then came the big crowd pleaser. The entire ensemble, dressed in black hats, black suits, and white shirts with collars open, came out into the crowd and pulled random members of the audience on-stage to participate in humorously seductive ballroom dancing set to a techno version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It is inevitable that the hijinks and slapstick here will win over any audience (by the end, one woman is made an unexpected star when she is the last audience member left and a spot light follows her back to her seat as the crowd cheers her on), even though you could, if you wanted to be a cynical bastard (which isn’t always bad), criticize Naharin for playing too much to the audience’s need for attention. That said, the moment was both fun and well played.

But the celebration subsided almost immediately to the evening’s most rigorous and brilliant dance. Five women, dressed plainly in navy, pleated school-girl skirts and navy short-sleeved tops, danced repeated, accumulating phrases to Arvo Pärt’s “Für Alina” combined with a spoken voice-over of lines written by Charles Bukowski.

As the spoken-word phrase put itself together (“Ignore all possible concepts and possibilities. Ignore Beethoven, the spider, The Damnation of Faust. Just make it babe, make it…” The women repeated their phrases faithful to each iteration of the voice over, but arranged in constantly new positions. Eventually solos were handed out between the tropes.

Heather Hamilton stood out. Her broad, masculine presence–so perfect for this kind of contemporary dance–belies her facility of movement. Each time the words “Ignore Beethoven” circle around, Ms. Hamilton perfectly times a slightly delayed, softly punctuating back bend toward the audience. She must have done at least thirty of them throughout the mesmeric rite of passage.

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The second half of the evening didn’t quite hold up to the first, even though it started on the highest note of the night, which was the discovery of Jon Bond–already noted last week as a highly satisfying dancer–as an equally remarkable performer. He is given the role of Vaudevillian intermezzo, so that when we came back to take our seats, we found him already on-stage, dancing solo to the muted “Recado Bossa Nova”, flirting with the audience, and commanding the crowd with a performance that was Chaplinesque in its humor, physical alertness, and vulnerability. Okay, okay, we’ll admit it: We were seduced.

But to press the point, when the ensemble came out to join him, your eyes course the crowd of dancers, subconsciously seeking to compare their fidgetty-cute restrained jams to his. And, inevitably, when you come back around to Bond, you realize that none of them has quite the same gift of being both self-effacing and sensual.

The remainder of the dances, mostly ensemble (with a strangely vulgar duet moment between Bond and Schacht when, after Bond has been chasing around Schacht to sniff her feet, she squats over his face, he grabs her haunches, and you hear a voice in the music hock a lugie), went on maintaining Naharin’s wicked style but losing direction. The entire work ended abruptly with a reprise moment from the Vivaldi dance; sly but flip.

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All in all, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Cedar Lake to commission more from Mr. Naharin. The work not only sits well on the company, but the dancers flourish in it. It seems to give them ample opportunity to celebrate their virtuosity and yet practice a disciplined vocabulary. At the very least, give us a few more nights of “Decadance.”

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