Cedar Lake's New World

June 30, 2009

Sixteen dancers in a tight formation push a 12-foot tall-metal gate-like structure forward. They begin to claw and climb and crawl through the small square holes, manipulating bodies and contorting into angles that allow an arm to escape before a head, a leg to carry the shoulder through.


This kind of malleable, near liquidity of limbs is a hallmark of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography. His newest work, Orbo Novo, made for Cedar Lake Contemporary Dance, premieres this month at Jacob’s Pillow.


The chameleon-like Cedar Lake dancers mold their style to whichever articulate and often non-American choreographer is creating works for them. This time it’s the 33-year-old Belgian choreographer Cherkaoui. The title of his work is a term that dates back to the late 1400s, used to describe Christopher Columbus’ journey to the Americas. “ ‘Orbo Novo’ is an old word for the New World,” he says. “You have that relationship of extreme past and what’s coming.”


Last year, Cherkaoui created his Buddhist and kung fu inspired work Sutra in collaboration with Shaolin monks in Henan, China. About Orbo Novo he says, “I am describing this voyage I made from being in China, being in the East, being so far away, and now being in the West, being in New York. There’s an extreme difference, and yet there is something similar to me.” The company will perform to a live original score by Szymon Brzóska. The giant trellis was designed by Alexander Dodge and the costumes were designed by Isabelle Lhoas.


This is the first time that Cherkaoui will debut a work in the U.S. His choreography has been performed only a handful of times here: In 2008 his Myth, performed by Antwerp’s Toneelhuis theater collective, came to UCLA (they also performed a version at Houston’s Dance Salad in April). Zero Degrees, a critically acclaimed duet he made with Akram Khan (see “Akram Khan,” Nov. 2008), came to New York City Center. In 2007 Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève performed Cherkaoui’s Loin at Jacob’s Pillow. Cedar Lake will perform Orbo Novo at the Pillow from July 8–12, and later at the Joyce and UCLA.


Cherkaoui says his movement aesthetic is inspired by his heritage. “I’m half Moroccan and half Belgian. The Belgian side is very surrealistic but then on the Moroccan side, there’s something of calligraphy. I always search for continuous movement.” Cherkaoui is inspired by choreographers Pina Bausch and William Forsythe as well as Alain Platel, founder of Les Ballets C. de la B. (formerly Les Ballets Contemporains de la Belgique). Cherkaoui performed with the company from 2000–2006, and has choreographed for it as well. He has also created pieces for the Royal Danish Ballet, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, and Cullberg Ballet, and has collaborated with Wim Vandekeybus. Next year Cherkaoui will unveil his own company in Belgium, called Eastman, the literal translation of his own last name.  


Cherkaoui is a big proponent of collaborating with the performers. “I constantly am picking up new ideas—from every dancer I meet, every body I see moving.” He feels fortunate to have been invited by artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer to choreograph for Cedar Lake. “The dancers are extremely gifted technically,” he says. “And they are eager to try different things; they are not afraid.”


Cedar Lake dancer Golan Yosef says Cherkaoui’s work is very human. “A lot of artists in dance become very visual so the bodies are very tight and it’s very linear. His posture is very relaxed so it looks like normal human beings moving.” Yosef says Cherkaoui gives the dancers tasks to work with, and those tasks yield new material for the piece. “There was one task where we had to stay connected to each other with the head and find different movements without disconnecting. There were phrases where we were manipulating the movements of the ladies while they make very day-to-day movements.” Other tasks have included finding animal-like movements and exploring the possibility of bouncing. In one segment, the dancers all sit cross-legged and facing forward to perform an elaborately articulate phrase using only their hands, creating images of birds, butterflies, and spiderwebs. (Go to dancemedia.com for rehearsal videos of Cherkaoui with Cedar Lake.)


The dancers enjoy the collaborative process, but there’s a bit of mystery behind Cherkaoui’s approach as well. “He doesn’t share much, so you’re not sure how it’ll come together,” says Jason Kittelberger, who has been with Cedar Lake since the company formed in 2003. “But then he’ll make a minor change and things start to link in and a story starts to happen without us even realizing he was creating a story.” —Emily Macel



Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of Cedar Lake.