Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet shocked the dance world when the company announced, in late March, that it would be closing at the end of its 2015 season. Though the Cedar Lake summer intensive is canceled, the company will honor its performance commitment June 3–6 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City, giving audiences one last chance to catch the contemporary troupe onstage.
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet's Rachelle Scott may have a dance-filled life, but that doesn't mean she has to tote her supplies in a “dance bag." “I use this really nice leather bag that I got during my second year at Juilliard—there's nothing dance-y about it," she says, with a laugh. “It's a relief to have something beautiful and functional that makes me feel like a human being, as well as a dancer."
That said, Scott enjoys thinking analytically about her craft. She always carries Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, a book that discusses ways to avoid creative roadblocks. “A good school friend of mine recommended it to me three years ago, right at that moment when I was transitioning from student to professional," she says. “Its way of talking about the artistic process grounds me and gives me a sense of perspective. I've been living by its philosophies ever since."
When it comes to fashion, this Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet dancer is fearless. She will unabashedly wear a leotard—and just a leotard—out clubbing with friends, or put on a pair of five-inch Giuseppe Zanotti heels to go to work. “The great thing about living in New York is that there’s so many different people with different influences, you can be yourself,” she says. “I can go out in a bow-tie or suspenders or a full-body catsuit.” Williams’ biggest fashion influence is her mom, who always dolled her up in pumps and dresses as a kid. “She likes me to have style, to look like a girl. And to make sure I’m not coming out of the house looking crazy.”
Crop top: ?“This used to be a unitard that I wore once while dancing with Beyoncé. I just cut off the legs.?”
Earrings: “I always wear earrings, even when I’m dancing. They’re a little decoration for the face, especially when I don’t want to wear makeup.”
Pants from a boutique in Puerto Rico: “I need some color on my body when I dance. Too much black kills me.”
Blazer from Zara: “My pop of color.”
Top: “It’s got an open back, which is my signature look.”
Leather shorts: “I work hard for my body. Why not show a little skin?”
Heels: “I have 50 pairs of heels at home, and more in storage. I can do anything in heels: go out after rehearsal, run to catch a bus—no problem.”
You wouldn’t expect Navarra Novy-Williams to stand out in a company like Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. Surrounded by powerhouse performers, her 5' 3" frame seems delicate, her demeanor demure. But then she begins to dance, and an unexpected quirkiness escapes. She moves with a playful, almost childlike energy that draws you in because you can’t predict what she’ll pull out next—each moment feels like a surprise.
Novy-Williams, 26, started dancing at her public elementary school in New Jersey, but didn’t become serious about dance until she was a teenager. “I was all over the place,” she says, listing a schedule that included ballet training with former American Ballet Theatre dancer Elaine Kudo, school productions of Fosse musicals and modern rehearsals with a student company. “But I never really thought dancing was what I’d do with my life.”
Unsure of what she wanted, Novy-Williams enrolled in Juilliard after high school. “I felt like I needed to learn more, be exposed to more before I could decide which direction I wanted to go in,” she explains. During college, she took advantage of a variety of opportunities, from dancing as an extra in Across The Universe to performing William Forsythe’s Limb’s Theorem on a national tour for Juilliard’s 100th anniversary.
Those experiences made her realize she loved contemporary ballet, and shortly after graduating in 2006 she auditioned for Cedar Lake. Ballet master Alexandra Damiani immediately recognized Novy-Williams from Springboard Danse Montreal, a contemporary workshop that both had participated in the previous summer. “I remembered Navarra because she looked like a little ballerina doll, but pulled out this gutsy, grounded movement and threw herself into these beautifully ugly positions,” says Damiani. “And I was like, ‘Where did that come from?’ ”
Although the Cedar Lake artistic staff liked Novy-Williams, there were no openings at the time. So she joined Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, where she performed premieres by choreographers such as Mats Ek, Mauro Bigonzetti and Christopher Wheeldon.
Her versatile training had prepared her well for the demands of a repertory company where dancers need to quickly adapt to many styles. Three years in, however, being jack-of-all-dance-trades began to wear on her; she felt like her focus was constantly fractured. “I just wanted to delve into one specific style for once,” she says. In particular, she wanted to explore Ohad Naharin’s Gaga technique. She’d worked with Naharin at Les Grands and loved his emphasis on improvisation and personal investigation. “Gaga offered a chance to find my own movement voice instead of always taking on someone else’s,” she says. In 2009, she traveled to Israel to join Naharin’s Batsheva Ensemble (the second company).
Just a year later, Cedar Lake called with an opening. She was torn. “To leave Israel was not an easy decision,” Novy-Williams admits. “But I missed home. Plus, Cedar Lake is doing something really special—no other companies in New York perform the work they do.”
At Cedar Lake, Novy-Williams quickly dove back into the day-to-day life of a repertory company, always working on new material, always trying to master a new choreographer’s style. “I definitely miss Batsheva,” she says. “But I do enjoy the challenge of working my body in different ways over the course of the same day.” She’s earned a reputation for hanging around the studio after hours to help choreographers try out new phrases or work out the kinks on her own. When she’s not being used during rehearsals, she checks on her lines with other dancers and practices movement on the side, watching herself in the mirror to perfect the angles. “She’s always pushing herself,” says Damiani. “She’s unattached to any one way of doing things; she is so open, and unafraid of asking questions.”
Rather than set goals for the future, Novy-Williams says she prefers to focus on the present. “For me, it’s more important that I’m fulfilled wherever I am in the moment,” she says, “and then sometimes surprising things happen.”
At a Glance
Company: Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
Training: Elaine Kudo’s Theatre Arts Dance America, Juilliard
Former Companies: Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, Batsheva Ensemble
Favorite Roles: Mauro Bigonzetti’s Cantata
Dream Choreographer to Work With: Andrea Miller
Dance Idol: Margie Gillis
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
New York City's Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet is arguably the edgiest, coolest ballet company in the country. But what's more impressive is how they accomplish this without alienating mainstream audiences. In fact, they've been able to reach potential dance fans that most companies only dream of: This spring, they danced alongside Emily Blunt on the big screen in The Adjustment Bureau. And on Thursday, they'll be streamed into your living room as guest artists on So You Think You Can Dance. Jon Bond and Soojin Choi (on Pointe's October/November 2010 cover) as well as Jason Kittleberger, Acacia Schachte and Ebony Williams will perform a piece from artistic director Benoit Swan-Pouffer's Installation series. Tune into FOX to see how they transfer their unique brand of awesome to the SYTYCD stage.
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet dancers are in the pop culture spotlight once again. After making its Hollywood debut in 2011's The Adjustment Bureau, the company is currently starring in a viral ad campaign for 2(X)IST, a designer men's underwear label. The short film clip, titled ENDS, features dancers Rachelle Scott, Joaquim De Santana and Guillaume Quéau performing choreography by artistic director Benoit Swan Pouffer—with both of the guys modeling 2(X)IST's new "Speed" line of briefs. Director Jason Scarletti told NewNowNext that the video “celebrates the man who cares about how he looks and feels in his own body.” Clearly, the fashion label wanted some of the most beautiful bodies on the planet to show off their product, and that's what they got. Take a look:
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet has been director-less for nearly a year. Longtime leader Benoit-Swan Pouffer, who shaped the company into an avant-garde powerhouse with a European accent, stepped down last May. Yesterday, however, it was announced that Alexandra Damiani will become Cedar Lake's new artistic director.
What does that mean? Well, as Cedar Lake's ballet master, Damiani was Pouffer's right-hand woman for many years, and she stayed his course during her time as interim director. So a dramatic change of vision for the company seems unlikely. That's fine by us; Cedar Lake's distinctive repertory fills a hole in the American ballet scene.
Here's the interesting part: Cedar Lake has also named Crystal Pite associate choreographer. Pite has already made two pieces for the company, and its dancers seem especially well-suited to her intricate, imaginative choreography. She'll create at least two more works for Cedar Lake over the next three years. We're excited to see what will come out of her deeper involvement with the company.
Get Pointe in your inbox
Since Pointe previewed its June/July cover at a special event last week at Brooklyn’s MoCADA Museum, the internet has been abuzz. The Huffington Post, The Washington Post and Jezebel have all picked it up. Not to boast, but the image says it all: The three cover ballerinas—Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Ashley Murphy, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Ebony Williams and American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland—face the camera, making it clear by sheer beauty, strength and presence that the time to address ballet’s diversity problem is now. Inside, the dancers speak frankly about how race has intersected with their careers. “To a certain extent, race affects us all,” Murphy told writer Alicia Graf Mack, “whether we are willing to admit it or not.” The issue also takes a close look at what companies are doing to develop and recruit dancers of color, and salutes some of the greatest achievements in diversity—so far—in an exclusive vintage photo essay with rare images from our archives.
If you are not a subscriber, click here to pre-order your copy. If you are, the issue mails on May 13, and is well worth the wait.
Cedar Lake rocked the dance community on Friday, announcing that the company would close in June at the end of its 2015 season. Were you planning to attend the Cedar Lake 180 summer intensive? It's canceled. Hopefully you bought travel insurance for your plane tickets because the upcoming March 27 and 28 company auditions are canceled too.
Cedar Lake was founded in 2003 by Nancy Laurie, a Walmart heiress, and offered a prime contract to its dancers: 52 weeks of paid work along with health and dental insurance. The company was known for introducing European choreographers to U.S. audiences and pushing the limits of what seems physically possible onstage. There was a hiccup in 2013, when founding artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer left the company, but things seemed back on track by 2014 when Cedar Lake had appointed former ballet mistress Alexandra Damiani as artistic director. Thanks to its top-notch dancers and choreographers, Cedar Lake has long been at the forefront of what's proven to be a very popular European aesthetic in contemporary dance. So why did things fall apart?
Pouffer's exit in 2013 hints that there might have been tension between the artistic and executive branches of the company. The Observer and the New York Times both noted that the company suffered from labor disputes and unusual labor practices, like fining dancers who were late to class or who made mistakes during a performance.
Regardless of the way it treated its dancers, Cedar Lake was still a dream company for many students who were drawn to the troupe's mixed genres and styles. Once the company is gone there will be a gaping hole in the NYC and U.S. contemporary dance scenes—not to mention dozens of performers and administrators out of work and thousands of audience members who won't get to have their lives touched by spectacular dance. It seems like the single-patron model, no matter how extraordinarily wealthy that patron is, won't last forever. RIP Cedar Lake.