British choreographer Hofesh Shechter’s masterful “Violet Kid” closed the second and final installment of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s run at UCLA Live on Saturday night. The splendid work simultaneously glowed in golden beauty and festered with relentless gloom. The dancers navigated this tricky duality with exceptional risk-taking. “Violet Kid” ratcheted the entire visit of the Manhattan-based troupe onto a high plane.
The company, founded in 2003, is funded by Nancy Walton Laurie, the niece of Sam Walton. The Wal-Mart heiress does not buy American -- at least not in choreography. The troupe is committed to fostering the work of European artists. Go figure. Artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer brought five repertory items around which his 16 versatile dancers wrapped their uber-trained bodies.
“Violet Kid” opened to the recorded voice of the gifted Israeli-born Shechter: “Do I talk too much? Maybe if I didn’t talk so much, I’d have more friends,” he said in a squirm-worthy confession. Was this ironic? His dancers formed the first of several downstage police lineups (an overused device in this company’s rep). Dressed in plain trousers and plaid or striped shirts (men) or frumpy flowered blouses (women), they were notably unglamorous.
Shechter replied to his own questions in the nearly 40-minute-long “Violet Kid,” a dance of dark depression set forth in vignettes. The choreographer’s own brooding score, a dense instrumentation of strings and drum, thudded in your chest as you watched.
Shechter has forged a unique style (copycats will surely emerge): a lexicon of shuffling rag dolls that pulsated nonstop. They were hurky-jerky, they shuddered, they raised their arms in the stick 'em up! position while ducking their heads. They scurried around the stage, hands clasped behind their backs.
A tenuous ballroom bit featured couples joined at the forehead. Uniting his twitchers in a group, Shechter melded their nervous tics into a gorgeous bundle, the tableau vivant of a 3-D drip painting.
Cedar Lake’s remaining repertory, though chock-full of adventure and creativity, did not reach the pinnacle of “Violet Kid.”
Crystal Pite’s “Grace Engine” was Friday night’s strongest item. A moody work that looked ripped from film noir, it grew from Pite’s observation in program notes that “the body itself is a cinematic device capable of jump cuts, flashbacks and montage.” Fluorescent tubes jutted forward on a shadowy stage; light streamed as well from the ceiling and the sides, creating chiaroscuro. Dancer Jonathan Bond, in a dark suit, opened with a forceful solo, at first startlingly fluid; then something hit him, like an energy field detonating on his body.
The work’s heavy soundscape bristled with urban noise: a train engine, then a repeating industrial sound -- a printing press? People ran, then they ran backward, then they froze in space. Ebony Williams, an amazing performer, took a frenzied solo, dancing low to the ground. In shirts of prison blue, dancers amassed downstage, their backs to the audience. This wall of bodies then did the wave. “Grace Engine's" ending, a duet for two women, seemed tacked on.
“Simply Marvel,” from Van Berkel, exceedingly messy on Friday, was more under control the second night. Set to spacey piano music by Theo Verby that gave way to Paganini’s string renderings, “Simply Marvel” enjoyed a design environment of crisp, white curlicue hanging sculptures by Dietmar Janeck. The mostly balletic vocabulary underengaged its performers, the men in soft ballet slippers, the ladies on pointe.
The best bit was a trio of groupings of two men partnering a single woman. The choreographer’s costume designs -- cool wedged tutus in brown paired with yellow sleeveless blouses -- got clever mirroring across the sexes. The marvelous Matthew Rich, with his Mohawk hairdo our favorite Cedar Lake dancer, appeared in funny pantaloons. He was always where the action was.
Alexander Ekman’s “Hubbub,” providing welcome humor Friday night, mocked the over-intellectualization of dance by critics and other losers. But the jokes were “insider” stuff that lacked universality. Nickemil Concepcion and Harumi Terayama excelled in a duet broadcasting the performers’ inner monologues as they toiled.
“Tuplet,” a Cedar Lake premiere also by Ekman offered Saturday night, used video and voice to pursue the meaning of rhythm. This good concept was only somewhat explored. The dancing in the vintage video surpassed what happened live onstage. Terayama was again wonderful, improvising as the audience settled in. Bond did visual punning on his name and James Bond. But this idea came right out of Choreography 101.
Contemporary dance clichés abounded both evenings: downstage lineups, voiceovers, footlights blinding the audience, dark suits, the throwing of suit jackets.
The Cedar Lake performances were among UCLA Live’s last of the season and forever. The city’s stalwart outlet for dance, and more, is being refashioned into the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA. Fare thee well, UCLA Live, and thanks for the memories.