Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet tries to downplay their Walmart connection, but it's hard to ignore. The fact that they were founded and funded by an heiress to one of the largest fortunes in America — Nancy Laurie — will always define the company to some extent. But this isn't big-box, all-American ballet, despite their billionaire backer. Rather, having that enviable funding means they can afford to take chances on unique dancers and cutting-edge works from young, fresh choreographers. And that's something a lot of dance companies — and arts organizations in general — can only dream about.
Cedar Lake has spent the last decade working to prove that they're far more than a wealthy woman's pet project. They're now recognized as one of the most innovative contemporary ballet companies in the country, thanks in no small part to artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer, a former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer. The French-born Pouffer is credited with selecting the sometimes risky, mostly European works for Cedar Lake's repertoire, many of which have yet to be introduced in the States. It takes a lot of confidence — and chance — to routinely bring unfamiliar choreographers to the American stage, but Pouffer shrugs it off.
"I travel a lot and find them," he says. "I look all around the world. Everybody can find them. It's not like there's a secret door to find them. You just have to find them and make decisions and take risks and choose them. Even though no one knows who they are, you believe in their work, and that's what I do."
Each piece Pouffer chooses for his dancers is meant to complement the company's existing repertoire, which he's been thoughtfully building since 2005. Although past works have often been dark and angsty, reflecting trends in Europe, more recent pieces have had a lighter feel. They just finished up a two-week run at Joyce Theater in New York featuring works by Jo Stromgren and Alexander Ekman. New York Times dance critic Brian Seibert remarked on how fun and "anti-intellectual" the program was.
Last year, the company had a fun moment in the spotlight when they made an appearance in the Matt Damon/Emily Blunt thriller The Adjustment Bureau. Blunt played a Cedar Lake dancer in the movie, and she trained extensively with Pouffer to make her performance as believable as possible.
"Any publicity is good publicity. It's been great," Pouffer says. "This experience was great not only personally as a choreographer but as a full company. They showed everything in the theater where we work, and [director George Nolfi] worked as well to get a sense of realness, that it's a real company working and not something that they invented."
While Blunt doesn't seem to be changing career paths anytime soon, Cedar Lake's real-life cast of 16 is young, highly trained, and completely individual. Although the company took on five new dancers this year, the crew has remained fairly constant over the years — and Pouffer likes it that way.
"Who they are as an artist and where they come from interests me a lot, and they have to have the ballet technique," Pouffer says. "I'm looking for someone who has something to say, someone who comes from a different horizon, someone who can put something on the table that I don't have already, and someone who can fit in the group.
"As you can imagine, it is challenging, but we find these people," he adds. "That's why I'm happy to not have such a turnaround or turnover, because when I find someone, I try to keep them here."
Cedar Lake's Spoleto program will include an energetic piece from U.K. choreographer Hofesh Shechter called Violet Kid; Annonciation, a duet from French choreographer Andelin Preljocaj; and Grace Engine from Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite.
"We're very excited to come back and show the audience how much we grow and what we've been up to," Pouffer says.