Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet made the most of the overhead spotlights at the Gaillard at their opening performance Friday night, laying out three eerily moving works that had in common the dramatic use of top-down lighting to create an anxious, uncomfortable sense that something bad was about to happen. Whether or not something bad did in fact happen may be a question best answered by audience members on a case-by-case basis. What’s certain is that Cedar Lake lived up to the contemporary in their name, eschewing narrative and the feelgood tropes of pop and classical music for a peek inside the surreal, slightly freakish landscapes of three European choreographers, where apparently the lighting is due for maintenance.
All three works made excellent use of a trio of live musicians on a platform slightly above and behind the stage, visible behind a shadowy scrim, who played haunting scenes on violin, cello, and double-bass, often accompanied by lush electronic soundscapes, Middle-Eastern style-percussion, and voiceover in an effect that bled into tribal techno at times.
In the first work, “Violet Kid,” from Hofesh Shecter, the 14 dancers, dressed like they’d just stepped out of Urban Outfitters, squirmed through what Shecter calls “man’s struggle for harmony within a complex and sometimes horrifying universe,” which does rather sound like a typical visit to Urban Outfitters. The work led the dancers through a variety of what seemed like clips from a teenager’s dream: they appeared as stoners and acid-heads at a party, headbangers at a rock concert, and shufflers at a dance hall rave. They segued into harrowing scenes that looked like a Goya painting and back into a ballroom dance class for beginners, from calisthenic exercises at a high school Phys Ed class to smasmatics undergoing electroshock therapy. In other words, modern high school life.
The second work, Angelin Preljocaj’s “Annonciation,” was a duet between the Angel Gabriel and Mary, set at the moment the Virgin learns she’s to be Mother of all Baby Mommas. It’s a curious subject for a dance work, and Cedar Lake sets themselves a challenge by pairing it with a nerve-rending score of electronic blips and bleeps. But the two dancers (Acacia Schachte and Harumi Tarayama on June 1) made masterful work of the sometimes bewildering choreography, which seemed to have God’s angelic messenger impregnating Mary by proxy at a public pool. No doubt some amount of bewilderment would be appropriate, given the circumstances.
The evening finished with “Grace Engine,” from French artist Crystal Pite, a piece which had its premiere earlier this year in Lyon, France. A large black box stage, fluorescent track lighting, and the sounds of a train coming and going suggested the notion of time as a locomotive. The troupe, dressed this time in what appeared to be highly elastic business suits, surged back and forth with and through each other in what the choreographer describes as “fragments of narrative.” Yet recognizable narrative appeared elusive; this seemed more an extension of the lives of the high-schoolers in “Violet Kid,” grown up now and living the dream of tortuous commutes, weekly dry-cleaning, and the neverending dance of office politics, compared to which electroshock and bad acid trips may seem pleasant dreams from a life long passed into half-darkness, lit only in flashes from above.