Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Man With Two Brains

May 09, 2010

from Orbo Novo by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
Photo: Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet 2010

Art has always depended in large part on the largess of its wealthiest patrons. Although we in the U.S. would like to view this as a more democratic enterprise than it was say three centuries ago, the fact is little has changed. We’re used to seeing the names of a small band of big donors on concert hall doors and stages, but rarely do we appreciate how much of what actually gets done rests in the hands of so few funders in what are still perceived as civic or communal arts organizations. In some ways the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet is almost a throwback to an earlier era. Founded in 2003 by Wal-Mart heiress Nancy Laurie, the company has wanted for very little financially and has embarked on a decidedly brave course commissioning works from some of the most regarded young choreographers in the world for the troupe under its current artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer. Cedar Lake made headlines here in Los Angeles earlier this year when it was announced they were embarking on a periodic residency with UCLA Live!, the University’s public performing arts series, before the group had even opened its first performance this season at Royce Hall.

On Friday, the company finally made its local debut with a work they premiered in summer 2009 by Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui entitled Orbo Novo. Cherkaoui’s own troupe appeared at UCLA in 2008, so the syntax of the piece was not foreign to local audiences. And, while the piece has not been glowingly received in its appearances in New York and other venues, it seemed to be very exciting to the Royce Hall audience on Friday and would appear to bode well for the future of their relationship with UCLA. Orbo Novo is inspired by the writings of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor who authored a memoir of her own experience having and recovering from a stroke in My Stroke of Insight. Cherkaoui uses Taylor’s neurological-inspired musings on the duality of human nature and a call for the more emotional and less analytical approach to the world as a starting point. And I mean this in the most literal sense in that the piece begins with two of the dances reciting text from Taylor’s book in unison laying out a didactic framework for what’s to follow. It did seem like a lot of dead space right at the front of the 90 minute program, but, admittedly, had a buff hottie in a sailor outfit given my neuroscience lectures I might be working in a different field today.

From here the dancers engage in a variety of groups, solo, and duet segments most of which directly relate to duality and division, not unlike the two hemispheres of the brain. When dancers work together, they tend to be more fluid and “functional” in the undulating animalistic way that Cherkaoui’s choreography often takes. All of this takes place in an empty set divided by several tall panels of red metal lattice work that the dancers move to repeatedly form new spaces and enclosures. The walls are scaled, and dancers (amazingly) pass through the small openings in the lattice crossing the divide. Sometimes they are only partially successful, and are left hanging in midair as if falling in slow motion. The images are striking—especially when the male dancers all disrobe down to nothing but their briefs for the greater part of the middle section of the evening. Nevertheless, all of this seems a little too obvious and direct at times. A little subtlety can go along way, and Orbo Novo had it in too small a supply. The performance itself, though, was quite engaging and bodes well for future collaborations here at UCLA.


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