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Jack Anderson

Jo Stromgren's Choreographic Sundays

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet performing Jo Stromgren’s “Sunday, Again” at the Cedar Lake Theater. Photo by Nicholas Roberts.

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
Cedar Lake, 547 West 26th Street, Chelsea
June 2-15, 2008
Evenings at 8, Saturday afternoons at 2
Tickets: (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com, $30, $20 students
Reviewed June 8, 2008

Children are bored on Sundays. So the old saying goes. Grownups can get bored, too, Jo Stromgren might add. As evidence, the Norwegian choreographer has created "Sunday, Again," which Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet presented in its American premiere.

What can children do on Sundays when (at least in some families) they're not enduring prim Sunday school classes or stuffy family dinners? Well, they can sometimes play games. But the tedium of the day may make them so testy that their games turn nasty. Stromgren's adults get equally peevish in games of badminton and love.

Ensembles occasionally cross the stage with individuals carrying badminton rackets or dragging badminton nets. But in the work's most significant episodes, dancers pair off in duets for irritable couples clutching each other with various degrees of aggression. There are moments of malicious humor, as when a shuttlecock mysteriously appears in a woman's mouth, as if this were someone's attempt to shut her up and stop her from bickering. A final ensemble is a wild mimed badminton game, at the end of which everyone droops wearily.

Although Stromgren has the materials for sharp satire here, he fails to develop them. His ensembles sometimes seem only studies in patterning, when additional hints of characterization might make these figures in a formal design more vivid as people. So, too, the quarreling couples could possess stronger personalities. The program notes tell us that, in addition to being a choreographer, Stromgren is a stage director, specializing in Ibsen. I wonder what his stagings of this dramatically rich ands subtle master are like.

"Sunday, Again," set to Bach, has musical, as well as dramatic, peculiarities. In addition to keyboard and violin pieces without programmatic significance, the accompaniment includes excerpts from the Motet No. 3 ("Jesu, Meine Freude"), in which the lyrics, in one English translation, begin, "Jesu, my joy, / my heart's repose, / Jesu, my treasure," and continue in a similar manner. The question is thereby raised, "Why sacred music for a secular satire?"

Conceivably, Stromgren wishes to contrast the score's noble sentiments with his characters' banal behavior. But if irony is his aim, it should be heightened.

Or Stromgren has chosen this Bach motet simply because he likes it: it is, after all, great music. And since the texts are in a foreign language (German), they should not prove unduly distracting in either Stromgren's Norway or our America. But those words do mean something specific, and if one has any notion of that meaning, they may prove bothersome to theatergoers seeking to make sense of the ballet. Because I believe choreographers should feel free to use whatever sacred or secular music they wish, my problem with this accompaniment has nothing to do with possible irreverence, but with overall theatrical coherence.

Bits of another sacred choral composition, Vivaldi's "Magnificat," along with electronic music by Stéphane Roy, accompany Angelin Preljocaj's "Annonciation," another new addition to Cedar Lake's repertory, although one not new to New York, since other dancers have previously performed it here. But it is good to know that a New York company has welcomed this remarkable duet depicting Mary (Jessica Lee Keller) meeting the Angel of the Annunciation (Acacia Schachte). Although theology proclaims angels sexless, they traditionally look male in Annunciation paintings. Therefore, by having a female Angel, Preljocaj may be investing his duet with lesbian implications: the women do touch. Yet the austere choreography transcends gender issues to show Mary awakening both to her own young physicality and to her maturing spirituality, especially as expressed in sequences in which Mary and the Angel keep dancing closely together, but without touching.

Cedar Lake also revived "Lasting Imprint," a piece from 2006 in which Nicolo Fonte keeps juxtaposing sudden rushes with equally sudden stops. So, too, silence is unexpectedly invaded by music by Steve Reich.

Once again, Cedar Lake, tucked away in Chelsea, has demonstrated that it's now a vital part of the New York ballet scene.


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