Two dancers rehearse under the skylight in Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s lofty studios as Alexander Ekman looks on. The Swedish choreographer is creating a duet. As he watches, Harumi Terayama, a Juilliard graduate, and Nickemil Concepcion, who previously danced with Ballet Tech, embellish a phrase or two with each pass at the choreography, moving with the pliancy, muscularity and daring that typifies Cedar Lake. It’s dancers like these who have lured some of today’s most sought-after choreographers to work with the company.

 

When Cedar Lake launched in 2003, few could have predicted how quickly its influence would be felt. Founded by Nancy Walton Laurie—niece of Sam Walton of Walmart fame—some initially saw Cedar Lake as a vanity project. Laurie had been a patron of dance in her hometown of St. Louis, but her newness to New York’s dance scene, combined with Cedar Lake’s sleek state-of-the-art headquarters near the city’s newly restored High Line, made critics doubt its artistic integ­rity. “I think we had to pay our dues,” says 36-year-old artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer, who joined in 2005.
The company has steadily gained credibility. Pouffer’s artistic direction has evolved, and the dancers have proved major assets. “They’re very strong technically, very physical,” notes Ekman. He is not alone in his admiration. “Cedar Lake has a very fresh, talented group of dancers,” says English choreographer Hofesh Shechter. “The company also allows a good period of time to create the work.” Dancers too have come to look at Cedar Lake as a smart option. The company’s annual 48-week contract is far longer than those of many traditional ballet companies. “We recently had an audition with almost 250 women,” says Pouffer. The company currently numbers 15, with seven women and eight men.

 

What makes a dancer potential Cedar Lake material? “Have a healthy relationship with ballet,” says ballet mistress Alexandra Damiani. “It’s our foundation. We also look at a dancer’s personality, creativity, their hunger to dance and create.” Cedar Lake’s dancers have a rich range of ballet training that includes Canada’s National Ballet School and The Boston Conservatory. Some are choreographers themselves. The company’s rigorous daily technique class, led by Damiani, helps pull the dancers together stylistically.

 

Many observers mark the 2007 staging of Ohan Narharin’s Decadance as the company’s turning point. The choreographer also taught classes in his signature Gaga technique, which requires that dancers work with the studio mirrors covered, an experience many describe as liberating. While the Cedar Lake repertoire varies greatly, one common thread is a full-out visceral style. Last year, the company commissioned Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to create Orbo Novo, a full-length work, for the company’s Joyce Theater debut. Performing diverging styles can be daunting, but also tremendously appealing. “It’s really a personal exploration for the dancers,” says Damiani.

 

Cedar Lake has two New York seasons a year, plus one or more additional pieces by Pouffer. The company has expanded its touring schedule, which this season includes at least 15 dates in the U.S. and Europe. It has also established an annual residency program at UCLA in California. This fall’s Joyce Theater run includes new works by Ekman, Jacopo Godani and Shechter, plus pieces now in the repertoire by Jo Strømgren and Didy Veldman.

 

Creating an evening’s program comes with certain risks. “I know that you can fail,” says Pouffer, himself a former dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Complexions, among other companies. “I didn’t want Cedar Lake to become another Ailey, but I liked working with different choreographers there because it made me a more complex dancer.”

 

Pouffer has choreographed four dances for Cedar Lake. These casual, site-specific performances can incorporate elements from another genre, say fashion or photography. The dancers improvise between set cues and mix with the audience, which is encouraged to move about.

 

Pouffer also created dances for the upcoming Universal film The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon, due to be released this coming spring. Co-star Emily Blunt worked with Pouffer to portray a Cedar Lake dancer. It is a measure of how much Cedar Lake has arrived that the director, George Nolfi, felt that the company had the requisite edginess, chic and cool to give the heroine credentials in the screen version of the New York dance world. The company’s studio served as one location. Perhaps not so coincidentally, it sits between pristine galleries and old car repair shops—between the polished and the gritty. Like Cedar Lake itself.

 

Susan Yung is a New York dance writer and critic.

 

 

Ballet Paid Off
Some dancers know from the start they want a career in ballet. Not Jon Bond, pictured on the cover with Soojin Choi, a Cedar Lake dancer who recently returned to Korea. Bond had plans to become a triple threat. At 10, he began taking classes at Center Stage Dance Academy in Long Beach, California, and quickly succeeded on the competition circuit. He resisted ballet class, but both his mother and his dance teacher wanted him to develop strong technique. “They paid me to go,” he says. He stuck with it, grudgingly, while attending Orange County High School of the Arts. Looking back, Bond says ballet’s discipline helped him clean up his movement. “I was overly dramatic onstage,” he says. “My ballet teachers would say, ‘You’re dancing too hard.’ Ballet calmed that down a little.”

 

After graduation, Bond got an offer to join Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Dancing Through Barriers youth ensemble, and moved to New York. It was at DTH, he says, that he fell in love with ballet, through classes with former Berlin Opera Ballet star Eva Evdokimova. “Before, I thought ballet was repetitious,” he says. “But the imagery she used worked for me.” Port de bras, for instance, had given him trouble: “I just couldn’t connect my eyes with my arms,” he says. “She’d say, ‘Think about pushing clouds away and painting the air with your fingertips.’ I’m very visual and it clicked.” Now 23, Bond joined Cedar Lake after two years with DTH. The fit seems organic: The company can tap Bond’s flexible range of movement and the choreography offers constant challenges to a dancer with a voracious appetite for the new. “I get bored quickly,” Bond con­fesses. “I need to constantly be moving.” The ballet classes he resisted have wound up opening a door. “When I was younger, everyone told me I could work in L.A., but I belonged in New York doing concert dance,” he says. “Ballet was the foundation.” —Rachel F. Elson

 

 

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Early in Carrie Imler's 22-year career with Pacific Northwest Ballet, she was excited to be cast in Balanchine's The Four Temperaments. But immediately following dress rehearsal, she was removed from her role in "Melancholic." "My artistic director at the time pulled me aside and said, 'We can't put you out there,' " she remembers. "My weight fluctuated my entire career. Just when I felt like I had figured it out, I would gain it back and have to start all over again." Despite becoming one of PNB's most celebrated principal dancers, Imler never shook the fear of what might happen when a leotard ballet was in the repertoire.

Ballet prides itself on high standards, and the classical ballet physique is not the least of those expectations. Fear of the "fat talk" still lurks in studios, but, as Imler points out, weight is a challenge that many dancers face, while others may struggle with the arches of their feet or turnout. If you are confronted about your weight, know that many talented dancers have been there. Having "the talk" doesn't mean you can't become a professional, but if you take a mindful approach to the conversation, it will show your maturity and ultimately your ability to navigate a career.

Has Something Changed?

If your teacher or director has approached you about your weight, you're likely left feeling emotional, vulnerable and overwhelmed. Once you have a chance to think clearly, ask yourself what factors, like puberty, may be contributing to changes in your body. Nadine Kaslow, resident psychologist at Atlanta Ballet, says, "There is this huge focus on weight and body at a time when even non-dancers are struggling with body issues and everything else that is happening as an adolescent."

External factors often play a role as well. PNB's consulting nutritionist, Peggy Swistak, says that she often sees dancers struggle with weight early in the season as they adjust to living on their own and sharing a kitchen with a roommate. "One may have really bad eating habits and doesn't have to watch her weight at all, and the other is gaining weight. There is a conflict in managing their food together," she says. Ballet Memphis ballet master Brian McSween adds that financial stress can create barriers for eating nutritiously. "The one-dollar piece of pizza costs a lot less than eating organic," he says. "You have to make the best choices possible with what you have." Other changes, like a new schedule, layoffs or even emotional setbacks, will present the need to reevaluate your food habits and exercise routines throughout your career.

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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

Summer Study Advice
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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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