Meet the un-American American dance company

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet may be based in Manhattan, but the works they are bringing on tour are European, finds Kelly Apter

Norwegian Jo Strømgren's Necessity, Again is a highly theatrical and humorous work. Picture: Jane Hobson
Norwegian Jo Strømgren's Necessity, Again is a highly theatrical and humorous work. Picture: Jane Hobson

Deep in the heart of Manhattan, among the hustle and bustle of New York life, lies a little bit of Europe. Walk into the home of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet on West 26th Street, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a rehearsal studio in Holland, France or Belgium.

Since the company’s formation in 2003, a steady supply of choreographers have crossed the Atlantic to create there (or sent assistants to mount their existing work), including Ohad Naharin, Jiří Kylián, Alexander Ekman, Hofesh Shechter and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

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Interim artistic director Alexandra Damiani explains why. “When Cedar Lake was founded ten years ago, one of our missions was to expose a New York audience to dance works and choreographers they hadn’t seen before,” she says.

“There was also a desire to feed the dancers works they would really want to perform, and it just so happened that during the past decade a lot of exciting work was being created outside the United States.”

But that’s not the only reason. Born and trained in France, Damiani has brought a European aesthetic to the Cedar Lake team. It also, she says, gave her a common ground with the visiting choreographers – both while they were working there, and once they’d left their piece behind.

“Being French myself, there was definitely an attraction towards European choreographers,” she says, “or choreographers from Canada who have had an extensive career in Europe. And the way works are kept here, once the choreographers or their assistants have gone home, is really in my hands. My French dance education does affect and influence that, even if it’s only in a minimal way.”

The United States isn’t short of dance talent, and New York in particular is a hot-bed of choreographers looking to display their work. Inevitably, this led to a minor backlash when Cedar Lake’s raison d’être became public knowledge.

“At first they were surprised that a New York-based company, with such wonderful resources locally, wasn’t trying to help the dance community in America,” says Damiani. “But the fact that the work was good quality, and we were serious about it, triggered more and more curiosity and excitement. Now Cedar Lake is known for being the place where you can see works that aren’t accessible elsewhere.”

Visiting Edinburgh for the first time this week, as part of its UK tour, Cedar Lake is bringing a triple-bill that perfectly sums up its ethos. Works by former Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) director, Jiří Kylián, Norwegian-born Jo Strømgren, and Canadian Crystal Pite (who danced with Ballett Frankfurt before becoming NDT’s associate choreographer) are all on the menu.

UK dance audiences are used to seeing such works performed – Kylián pieces regularly feature in NDT’s line-up, Strømgren just created a work for Scottish Dance Theatre.

What we’re less familiar with is how a company from the US handles such material.

“I like to think we bring a new and edgy physicality to the works,” says Damiani, “while still staying very faithful to the choreographer. For example, one of Jiří Kylián’s assistants came to Cedar Lake to mount Indigo Rose, so we had plenty of time to really capture what Kylián wanted to do with the piece. But of course we infuse so much of who we are – strong personalities, strong sense of individuality and strong technique, and you’ll see a typical New York energy and freshness.”

Despite their European connection, all three of the works Cedar Lake is bringing to Edinburgh also have a strong sense of individuality. Pite’s Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue is a passionate display of love and trust, Kylián’s mesmerising Indigo Rose finds the stage divided by a large swath of material, and Strømgren’s Necessity, Again is a highly theatrical and humorous work with hundreds of bits of paper scattered across the space.

“We see Cedar Lake as a little art gallery,” says Damiani. “It’s great to have new creations and really get into the contemporary aspect with what’s happening right now. But a beautiful Picasso or Rothko is wonderful, too – so to have a Kylián piece in our repertoire is such an honour, and it’s great to be able to bring that to the table.”

If, when they get here, the Cedar Lake dancers look familiar to you, it may be because you saw them dancing alongside Emily Blunt in the 2011 film, The Adjustment Bureau. For Damiani (who coached Blunt for the role) it was a good experience on a number of levels.

“It was great fun,” she says. “We love projects that are outside the box, and it was nice to do something different. But also, a common concern for every dance company is how do you bring in younger audiences? Dance on film can make it look more accessible and edgy, and for people who wouldn’t ordinarily think about dance, it can make them curious.”

• Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 10-11 October.