Cedar Lake dancers in Orbo Novo, photo by Julieta Cervantes
Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Orbo Novo (New World), created for Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, made its New York City premiere last week at the Joyce Theater. The piece was inspired by “My Stroke of Insight”, a memoir by the neuro-anatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, who suffered a stroke at the age of thirty-seven. Weaving together flowing movement and text that is both humorous and analytical, Cherkaoui attempted to illustrate distinctions between the past and the future, the left and right brain hemispheres, the old and new. In spite of seamless dancing, the result lacked texture and variety, never revealing a world more intriguing or complex than our own.
The stage created boundaries and constraints for the dancers with a set design of four red, metal grids on wheels, created by Alexander Dodge. When Acacia Schachte climbed the lattice structure, hung gracefully at the top, and then slithered to the floor – where she excelled at Cherkaoui’s undulating movement before collapsing – the audience saw the first of many literal portrayals of Taylor’s memoir. This clear illustration of a stroke was followed by spoken text – accompanied by slow walking and myriad arm gestures – that elaborated on Taylor’s thought process as the stroke occurred. Speaking matter-of-factly and at times humorously, the dancers conveyed the experience of mentally persevering while physically struggling to go through the motions.
Cedar Lake in Orbo Novo, photo by Julieta Cervantes
More compelling was the series of solos, trios, and ensemble dancing – filled with moments of calm stung by aggressive, tumbling spurts of adrenaline – that set the dancers into eternally-moving journeys that only came to an end because of confinement within the metal structure’s walls. When the dancers were trapped, their limbs dangled lifelessly through the grid, and suddenly they would glide through and come to life. Freed or contaminated, however, there was little variety in Cherkaoui’s choreography. It was just one undulating movement after another. And although watching their supple bodies ripple and curl was mesmerizing at times, the eyes tended to glaze over because of so little change in movement quality throughout the eighty-minute work. Szymon Brzóska’s meditative score, played by the Mosaic String Quartet and pianist Aaron Wunsch, was similarly unvarying with the exception of a few vibrant, fast-paced sections that infused the piece with energy.
Cedar Lake’s dancers are undoubtedly a talented, disciplined group, but in Orbo Novo they appeared unmoved by the content of the work, and sections of their speaking were forced and insincere. While they beautifully achieved the illusion that their physical beings were pushed and pulled by external forces, their performances lacked the emotional and psychological depth that the piece required. Perhaps this has more to do with Cherkaoui, who never shared his own voice in the piece, instead relying solely on Taylor’s memoir for direction and interpretation. The result was a one-dimensional, unchanging world that was more bland than peaceful.