Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Benoit-Swan Pouffer has created an edgy, eclectic troupe.
It’s a late-spring day in New York’s stylish Chelsea neighborhood, and Benoit-Swan Pouffer is auditioning a new dancer. Over the last half hour, he has put together and taught a short combination; now Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s artistic director is standing at the edge of the floor, watching the candidate and giving notes.
He adjusts a pop of the chin, corrects a shift of weight: “Think of it as a fall,” Pouffer coaches. “That’s it; use that space.” He watches another several phrases. “I like that flex,” he says approvingly.
As the candidate rehearses, Pouffer explains the process. Would-be company members take class with the company and learn some repertoire, he says, but Pouffer also works with dancers one-on-one, to see how they improvise and pick up new material: “I never hire people on the spot; it’s a process.” He’s looking to see whether a dancer knows how to make his or her own choices—adjusting a stance, for instance, or the pacing of a sequence. “It’s about offering a true conversation,” he says.
Those conversations are important, because Pouffer isn’t just hiring dancers; he’s building an organization. Cedar Lake is not quite a decade old, and almost half of its 16 company members have been with Pouffer—who was named artistic director in 2005—for five or more years.
When he became director, the New York dance world had already dismissed the company as a vanity project of its well-heeled founder, Walmart heiress Nancy Walton Laurie. Initial reviews savaged Pouffer’s own choreography as well. Those early rebuffs gave him a certain degree of freedom, he says now: “I wasn’t thinking about what people were going to say, because they had already said it.”
And so, soon after he was named director, he set about bringing in a steady stream of high-profile choreographers from Canada, Europe and beyond—including Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Crystal Pite and Angelin Preljocaj. But it was Ohad Naharin’s Decadance in 2007, which brought in a flood of rave reviews, that almost singlehandedly rebuilt Cedar Lake’s reputation. Finally, with top cutting-edge choreography, Cedar Lake’s dancers had a chance to show off the extent of their talent.
Cedar Lake’s deliberate, global eclecticism, unusual for a U.S. company, is part of Pouffer’s vision. “I wanted to bring in personalities with a distinctive voice, and I wanted Americans to have a window on what’s going on overseas,” he explains. He sees the company as a laboratory of sorts, where his dancers can work with a single choreographer for as long as possible—six weeks, three months—to develop a collaborative process.
At the same time, Pouffer has been developing a diverse, skilled corps of dancers who can embrace this stylistic fluidity. While his dancers often bring their own individual styles, he says all prospective company members need to have a strong base of classical ballet and modern technique.
“Women have to be able to work on pointe, but they also need to be well grounded, they have to feel the weight of their pelvis,” he explains. “Truly, technique is the ability to express yourself—if you fall out of your pirouette, it’s going to keep you from expressing yourself.”
His dancers also need artistic flexibility and creativity. Because Cedar Lake brings in many choreographers to develop new work, dancers need to shift quickly between different personalities with different styles of movement. “Part of the job is to adapt yourself,” Pouffer says. “If Ohad says, ‘For the next three months, we’re not going to do ballet, we’re going to do Gaga,’ there are certain dancers who would not be comfortable with that.”
In between guest choreographers and touring engagements (the company will perform in 30 cities this year), Pouffer and his dancers develop “installations”—short, partially improvised pieces that he calls a response to the neighborhood’s many art galleries and a fresh way for audiences to view dance. The works are around 45 minutes long, performed twice a day; audience members stand, and can move around freely, and the dancers work around and through them. “I want to challenge my dancers,” Pouffer says. “Because the audience is unpredictable, you have to think fast. It’s an adrenaline rush.”
That challenge is simply part of being a Cedar Lake dancer, Pouffer says: “It’s not about being a puppet. I just believe dancers are more complex than that; they put more things on the table.
“You’re limiting yourself as a choreographer if you’re the only one talking,” he adds. “And it limits the end product.”
At A Glance
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
Number of dancers: 16
Length of contract: 48 weeks
Starting salary: Company does not release this information
Performances per year: 50–75
Touring: The 2012–13 schedule includes Spoleto Festival USA, Ravenna Festival in Italy, Montpellier Dance Festival in France, Sadler’s Wells in London and DanceHouse in Vancouver, among other venues.