When Ezra Pound said, "Make it new," he was urging modernist artists, mostly poets, to find value in the past from the point of view of the present. Orchestras and dance companies have done just that, but over time, they eventually inverted Pound's edict, as if saying to living composers and choreographers, the oldies are the real goodies.
So orchestras and dance companies have become, over the past half century, more like cover bands. All method and technique, but little creative spark. Why dick around with the new and convince your donors to give it a try, when you can offer Beethoven and Brahms? And The Nutcracker? Don't even think of it. Those tutus are here to stay.
Benoit-Swan Pouffer understands how art sometimes becomes a sacred cow. The artistic director of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, which performs for the first time at this year's Spoleto Festival, is keenly aware of stagnation.
"Our mission is to bring attention to new work by international choreographers," Pouffer says from Switzerland. "We try to make a comprehensive environment for them to work. They are all different, and the dancers are all eclectic, and, somehow, it all works."
With a mission to create new dance, and present it to new audiences, comes the need for dancers who can handle anything. That's what Pouffer means by "comprehensive." His dancers, who live in New York City and work 52 weeks out of the year, are as skilled as jazz musicians. They can take on whatever comes their way, even if the demands stray outside the idiom of ballet.
"In dancers, I'm looking for diversity, personality, and skill," Pouffer says. "Not everyone looks the same here like in ordinary ballet. We don't value uniformity.
"But the most important aspect in a dancer is a willingness to try new things. Not everyone is open to experimentation. This is no cookie-cutter ballet company."
Case in point is Cedar Lake's performance plans for Spoleto. It will feature three European choreographers: Jo Strømgren, who created Sunday, Again; Ohad Naharin, creator of Decadance; and Crystal Pite's Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue.
Pite is the "jewel of the company," Pouffer says. Her acclaimed piece uses five dancers to convey a "big scope on a small stage with a focus on intimacy," he says. Good choreographers like Pite find "the risk in the moves" and exploit that risk. In the thick of that discovery is what matters most to Pouffer and Cedar Lake Ballet.
To make it new.
"I want them to see the big picture," Pouffer says. "What I'm looking for is something new to bring my dancers. I want the choreographer to give them food. I want to nourish them artistically."