Artistic Strokes

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I first fell in love with the NY-based company Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet at its 2007 premiere of Ohad Naharin’s Decadance. My longtime friend, Jon Bond, had just joined the company and I went to support him. I was not, however, prepared for each member’s inimitable movement quality and insane performance magnetism that grabbed hold of me and refused to let go. As one unit, they were perfect, and I was speechless.

To my delight, I discovered that Cedar Lake was recently named UCLA Live’s first dance company in residence. Starting in 2011, the troupe will hold various master classes, workshops, and other dance events, as well as biannual performances, for UCLA students and the L.A. community. They commenced this residency with a two-night run at Royce Hall last month. I, of course, couldn’t miss it.

The evening-length work Orbo Novo (the New World), by Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, pulled both the dancers and audience out of their comfort zones. The first section of the piece emulated a biology class. Dancers stood centerstage and recited scientific descriptions of how the brain works. The right half of the brain is concerned with “right here, right now”; the left focuses on the past and future, connecting details and thinking in language. “It’s the little voice that says to me, ‘I am.’ That’s the part of my brain I lost on the morning of my stroke,” recited one male dancer.

The dancers quoted excerpts from brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s, My Stroke of Insight, a memoir recounting the mental, physical, and emotional experiences of her own stroke. Humorous asides lightened the grim topic. Taylor’s (and Cherkaoui’s) “idea worth spreading” was the realization that we have the power to choose “who and how we want to be in the world.” With those final words, the dancers fell silent and proceeded into a nonstop, athletic group phrase to an original score by Polish composer Szymon Brzóska. They arced, spiraled, and jumped through space effortlessly. They flung themselves across the floor in continuous dive rolls and cartwheels and twisted headstands. The non-dancer doesn’t realize how exhausting floor-work like that actually is, and even when I knew the performers were on the verge of collapse, they never showed it.

Two giant, movable red fences (perhaps representing the brain’s two hemispheres, or the human duality that Cherkaoui sought to explore) allowed the dancers to manipulate their environment and create ever-changing scenarios: partition separating two lovers, a gender-dividing wall, a jungle gym, a platform to jump off of, a cage trapping all within. Their slithering bodies weaved in and out of the fence holes and dangled high above ground.

When detached from the fixtures, dancers alternated between controlled extensions and awkward, contorted twitches and spasms. In an intriguing duet, two men stopped convulsing only when physically connected, indicating the power of human touch. In another trio, two males manipulated and violently undressed a single female, introducing themes of submission, control, and possession of one’s body. Though superficially about one woman’s stroke, the 75-minute piece is also a deeper exploration of the physical self versus the mental self, and how our relations to the outside world change when these domains are threatened. In the final scene, dancers tangled within the walls of the cage slowly exited one-by-one until one male was left—and I was left pondering a handful of elusive questions. I have a feeling that is exactly what Cherkaoui intended.

-Marissa Osato

Photograph by Julieta Cervantes