A Surfeit of Sweets

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The New York Sun

What if New York’s struggling dancers and choreographers could be released from their money worries, their odd jobs, their long commutes from their cheap apartments to their cheap rehearsal spaces? What if they could be paid year-round salaries, given health insurance, and plunked down in a pristine rehearsal studio with plenty of time to focus only on creating dances, as their European counterparts can?

Those “what ifs” were answered to some degree with the founding of Cedar Lake in 2003 by billionaire Wal-Mart heiress Nancy Walton Laurie. On Monday night, a more than usually chic crowd turned out to see the latest results of this unusual experiment. The occasion was the full company premiere of “Hammer,” a piece by Benoit-Swan Pouffer, the earnest young Parisian (and former Alvin Ailey dancer) who took over as the company’s artistic director last year.

Mr. Pouffer’s theme, broadcast both in an opening projection of text and in the program notes, was a notion of “challenging life with a hammer.” This was inspired, in part, by a youthful reading of Nietzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols.” The lights dimmed, and out came the hammer: A lone woman whacked it against the floor. She was joined by a matched set of girls in Ann Taylor-like dresses and boys in button-down shirts and slacks, who danced with a raw athleticism that belied their formal clothes.

This was the best part of “Hammer” – a full 15 minutes of energetic unison dancing, confined in the space delineated by a series of black planks spread out over the white flooring. (During solos or small ensembles, the extra dancers sat quietly together in a corner.) There were interestingly tangled dance holds and lifts that propelled the girls explosively into the air.

Cedar Lake’s dancers are an athletic bunch, and the opening’s fast, high-energy dancing suited their style – ballettrained, but with the ballet edges rubbed off.The shadowy figures projected on the back wall might have been the dancers’ own shadows – except that they didn’t quite synch up with the live motion.The effect was eerie in conjunction with Stefano Zazzera’s score – an industrial hum layered with sounds of dripping pipes and fluorescent lights sputtering.

Meanwhile, over in the white reaches of the stage beyond the black boardwalk, supine creatures in neutral leotards performed odd-looking calisthenics.These creatures were apparently out in the wild, while the preppies in jazz shoes traipsed around on black boards that indicated civilization. As the section closed, the civilized folks kicked off their shoes, lost the boards, and slipped onto the bare white floor.

Here the dance made an abrupt turn, chucking its Nietzschean-industrial aesthetic in favor of pure kitsch.The white space, a floor, and a back wall curved like a skateboarding halfpipe allowing the dancers to dash up the wall. From a square opening near the top of the wall, dancers sometimes dropped onto the stage. But mainly the wall and floor were used as a canvas for an endless stream of video projections by Adam Larsen.

The video projections – and the accompanying dances – had all the subtlety of a hammer. First there was a green gloom,in which dancers in chiffon dresses inched backward on pointe. Next, inexplicably, a group of girls sashayed out in short black wigs and poofy party dresses, surrounding a game show host with sequined lapels. It was a campy number that segued into a buffoonish video sequence: a faux series of jokey infomercials for hammers.

The digressions continued: Pac-Man screens, a girl with a balloons tied around her body, sharks cruising over the back wall, dancers drawing on the wall with chalk. Some of it was pleasantly whimsical,but none of it had anything to do with those first, potent 15 minutes. Mr. Pouffer bounded from one multimedia effect to another like a kid in a candy store – with the same result: a surfeit of sweets.

Though Mr. Pouffer leads one of the best-funded dance companies in America, he is a young and relatively inexperienced choreographer. He showed his greenness in “Hammer” – with its lack of sustained theme and structure, its eagerness to score with the broad joke, its mania for all things multi-media. At the end of “Hammer,” a girl comes out with the hammer and weakly taps a few balloons, which give off a couple of lame pops. Like Mr. Pouffer in “Hammer,” she’s got plenty of force on her side; if only she would let loose and use it.

Until June 4 (547 West 26th Street, Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-244-0015).

The New York Sun

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