Arts & Entertainment

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet is not just visiting UCLA

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David Sefton has made it his mission to introduce cutting-edge contemporary dance from outside the United States to Los Angeles audiences. So it's no accident that he started noticing how the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, a New York City-based company, was also approaching "all the interesting choreographers on the planet" to create new work for its dancers.

"It became clear to me that in terms of dance companies in the United States, there was no one with a more adventurous approach in strategy," says the artistic director of UCLA Live.

Sefton wound up proposing a joint venture that significantly transcended the typical relationship between presenting organization and performing artist. He invited Cedar Lake not only to perform at Royce Hall but to have an ongoing presence at UCLA.

"It's partly a reflection that we're part of an academic institution, but I had been thinking about building a more sustained relationship with a dance company that would benefit both UCLA students and the general L.A. audience," he says.

Billed as the first "unique interactive residency" sponsored by UCLA Live, Cedar Lake and its 15 dancers will conduct classes and workshops with UCLA students and the community at large over the next three years. Plans also include the creation of an interactive performance installation on campus and future UCLA Live engagements. The residency begins with the company's performances at Royce Hall on Friday and Saturday.

Benoit-Swan Pouffer, Cedar Lake's artistic director, intends to scout the campus for possible installation sites during the company's upcoming visit. He also envisions an online component to the residency for when the company isn't in town. "It could be interesting to start a dance via the Internet, where students send us their interpretation of movement phrases and we send videos back with comments," he says.

Sefton and Pouffer express an enthusiasm about working together that seems born from having markedly similar curatorial taste. Over the years, they have solicited the same internationally prominent choreographers whose works might otherwise not be shown in the United States. Cedar Lake's upcoming UCLA Live performances, for example, feature works by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Crystal Pite, Jo Stromgren and Didy Veldman — choreographers, who hail, respectively, from Belgium, Canada, Norway and the Netherlands.

"I appreciate the drive and energy of American dance but my sensibility is European," says the 35-year-old French-born Pouffer, who goes by the nickname Swan and whose career includes seven years as a dancer with the Alvin Ailey dance company.

Hired by Cedar Lake in 2005, Pouffer managed to transform a fledgling dance company in search of an identity into a sophisticated organization known for its classically trained yet highly versatile dancers and heavily European repertoire. Though its model bears similarities to companies such as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, which recently performed in Los Angeles, Cedar Lake also has the good fortune of having a singular and devoted patron. Founded in 2003 by philanthropist and Wal-Mart heir Nancy Laurie, the company has the financial means to invite choreographers to their well-appointed digs in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood.

Ohad Naharin of Israel's Batsheva Dance Company, for example, spent three months in 2007 working with the Cedar Lake dancers, not only teaching his signature work "Decadance" but schooling them in Gaga, his technique that helps free dancers from established movement habits. Cherkaoui spent five months with the company to create "Orbo Novo," a multimedia meditation on the human brain.

"It's a very different experience to work with people in creating something new, as opposed to learning a work that's already been choreographed off a video," says Acacia Schachte, 31, who has danced with the company since 2006. "You become more open working with choreographers this way and I know it's allowed me to access more energy and dynamics from my body."

With all sorts of proposals from choreographers abroad now landing on his desk and some 400 dancers showing up for a recent audition, it seems that Pouffer's management style has definitely paid off. "The word is out in Europe about us," he says. "But we still have to prove ourselves and to keep pushing the boundaries of what dance is."

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