“We’re starting from scratch,” says Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet Artistic Director Benoit-Swan Pouffer, “so we have no legacies. It’s just the future.” For New York City–based Cedar Lake, founded in 2003 with abundant funding from Wal-Mart heiress Nancy Walton Laurie, the future lies in daring, experimental works danced by rigorously trained, artistically curious performers. “It’s this powerful feeling that there’s no past, just present,” continues Pouffer.
Laurie’s largess enabled the company to purchase and renovate two Manhattan buildings, transforming what was Annie Leibovitz’s photo studio into dance studios, offices, a dancers’ lounge and a 191-seat theater. The troupe’s 14 performers all have 52-week contracts and full health and dental benefits—extraordinary working conditions for dancers in America. “It lets you concentrate and focus,” says Pouffer. “You just have to dance and become an artist. That’s all I’m asking of those dancers—to focus on what they love, which is dancing.”
Pouffer, born and raised in Paris, came to the U.S. in 1993 and danced with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco, Complexions and Donald Byrd/The Group. He took the reins in August 2005 after serving as Cedar Lake’s resident choreographer and set to planning performances for what had been a much-discussed but rarely seen performing troupe. Pouffer draws upon his European background as well as his New York sensibility in developing Cedar Lake’s repertoire. His goals are to give
up-and-coming American choreographers opportunities to create work and to introduce American audiences to the work of established European choreographers.
Pouffer’s first season was marked by two programs of works centered on specific themes: birth (a natural with a brand-new company and a new building) and dreams. This season started in January with a repertoire evening featuring world premières by Edgar Zandegas, a Mexican-born dancer with Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, and Italian choreographer Jacapo Godani alongside Pouffer’s Vastav, which premiered at Jacob’s Pillow last summer. Pouffer says he relies on word of mouth in his search for choreographers to work with the company. “I have a lot of connections in Europe,” he says. “I’ll call friends who know friends who know friends and they’ll send me tapes. It’s kind of like six degrees of separation. It’s such a small world.”
Cedar Lake will also stage the full-length Decadance by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin in May. The company is able to provide luxuriously long rehearsal periods: Godani had six weeks to create his work; rehearsals to set the Naharin piece will stretch over three months. “We have a chance to offer choreographers the time that they need,” says Pouffer.
“I try to provide a comfort level so the choreographer can produce the best work.”
The dancers are schooled in ballet yet are also distinctly individual. Cedar Lake is an eclectic group, with recent college grads mixing with veterans of the music video and Broadway scenes and experienced performers from companies such as Ballet British Columbia, Ballet Theatre Afrikan, Complexions, Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Royal Danish Ballet. “They are artists, and they have something to say,” Pouffer says of Cedar Lake performers. “When you look at the company right now, it’s like ice cream. They’re all made with really great ingredients, but they are different flavors.”
With first-rate dancers, an amazing facility and top-notch choreographers all in place, the challenge remains to develop an audience. The company offers free preview nights before each program and low-cost tickets. Last summer, Pouffer also started experimental Thursday evening “installations,” as the company’s new home is located in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, where many art galleries stay open Thursday nights. The seating in the theater was dismantled and dancers performed in different areas of the wide room that remained, accompanied by a DJ and a videographer. “I wanted to have the audience less passive,” says Pouffer. “They see the dancers a few feet away and have to make choices, because they can’t see everything. So they feel involved in the work and part of it. I had people hanging on the walls, almost like little insects. It was so well-lit that you couldn’t see anything holding them up.
It was magic.”
Despite its efforts to embrace the community, the young company has received its fair share of criticism, some of it undoubtedly due to the enormous advantage the company has with such a generous financial backer. Pouffer believes the troupe is slowly earning acceptance. “We are starting to see differences in how they look at us. And what I want to put out there is—it came from a good place. Nancy Laurie respects the art form. By doing this, she was trying to help the dance community.
“I can understand that a few eyebrows will be raised. But hopefully we’ll show how much we are worth and how valuable this company is as a force that pushes the limits and creates work and opportunities. I’m just trying to do positive things.”