BECKET — The popular New York-based Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, which returns to Jacob’s Pillow this week, is on the cusp of its 10th birthday, and — the hiccup caused by the recent departure of its artistic director aside — the relatively young company is maturing nicely, looking like a bright ship on the horizon of dance.
Cedar Lake’s popularity has everything to do with its roster of technically strong, stylistically malleable dancers, and its formidable repertoire of works by A-list choreographers. This, however, requires a good deal of money, a reminder that Nancy Laurie, an heir of the Walmart empire, founded the troupe.
But money can’t dance, and true art doesn’t lie: This company is the real deal.
One of Cedar Lake’s most refreshing traits is the dancers’ considerable affability. With “Tuplet,” choreographer Alexander Ekman mines these personalities in an exploration of how rhythm serves both as a driver of dance and as a highly individual inner muse. The six performers groove to their own beat — air-drumming and air-conducting; whispering, chanting, sometimes shouting; slapping their thighs or abdomens — and when they break out and dance, the movement is athletic and percussive, sometimes in unison but mostly defending Ekman’s pleasing argument that we all got rhythm, and we can attune ourselves to hearing it as harmony, rather than cacophony.
Jo Stromgren’s “Necessity, Again” celebrates purposeful dissonance, riffing on Jacques Derrida’s theories of deconstruction. Props, (clotheslines, a table and chair, and loads of paper, sheets that are constantly flung about) rather than illustrating a narrative, instead add to the atmosphere of exuberant irrationality. I think the mayhem could go further — a dance that proposes to take us on a plunge needn’t occasionally look before it leaps — but when Stromgren releases the cast of 10 into pure dance, the images are fantastically beautiful. A woman is lifted way up, repeatedly, impossibly soft and quiet, conjuring the poetic flight of a butterfly. In one lovely section, the group clusters and moves as a unit that, as its individual members begin to undulate in a slight canon, resembles a jellyfish, its whispery tentacles trailing hauntingly in space.
“Necessity, Again” does strike one painful — and, to me, wrong note — in a scene that suggests a gang rape of a semi-conscious woman. The movement here is also soft, also lovely, but the aftertaste is bitter, ill suited to this particular piece.
Indeed, Crystal Pite’s “Grace Engine” is the strongest of the three on this program, and as it happens, it’s rather dark, both literally and metaphorically. It’s also probably the least “accessible” dance: Pite isn’t one for tidy happy endings, for easily identifiable stopping or starting points. All the better. Set to a somber, often ominous score by Owen Belton, the dance explores familiar Pite terrain — the often lonely struggle of human existence — through the lens of her trademark movement. (Sometimes it seems to me that her dances are just one long undulation, restless but luxuriously precise, her dancers rolling on the ground, upright, or aloft, ceaseless yet quiet, like tall trees stirring by the road.)
Pite always shows us a glimmer of humanity, a rope thrown to keep her characters from drowning with the weight of the world. Near the beginning of “Grace Engine,” a woman opens her mouth in a silent chasm of a scream: The intensity of it ripples into the other dancers, arching them back and pushing them away from her; at the end, the woman screams again, but now another steps forward to absorb some of the pain, offering solace, legitimacy, and, finally hope. The dance ends enigmatically, but this note of grace is loud and clear.