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Q&A: Cedar Lake Ballet’s Benoit-Swan Pouffer and Ida Saki

Guest blogger Danielle Marie Georgiou is the artistic director and choreographer of DGDG: Danielle Georgiou Dance Group. She also serves as the Assistant Director of the UT Arlington’s Dance Ensemble. And she’s a member of Muscle Nation.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet has continued to distinguish itself through both its exquisitely trained corps of dancers and its emphasis on acquiring and commissioning original pieces of work by the world’s most sought-after choreographers.

Founded in 2003 by Nancy Laurie and artistically directed by Benoit-Swan Pouffer, Cedar Lake offers a wide-ranging repertory that includes works by notable choreographers Jiří Kylián, Hofesh Shechter and Crystal Pite, and dance installations by Pouffer that breakdown the barrier between performer and audience creating a one of a kind dance experience. Cedar Lake comes to the AT&T Performing Arts Center on Saturday.

I spoke with Pouffer, affectionately called Swan by the dance community, and new company member Ida Saki—a young dancer from Dallas who moved to New York to attend New York University and is now in the midst of her first season with Cedar Lake. We talked about the ballet’s much-anticipated return to Dallas (you might remember their first trip here and their installation in Hamon Hall).

Benoit-Swan Pouffer
Photo: François Rousseau

Danielle Georgiou: Since the start of Cedar Lake, you have always been committed to bringing in European choreographers as guests. It’s really wonderful, because it’s introducing American audiences to styles that they wouldn’t normally see. What is the process of bring them in?

Benoit-Swan Pouffer: It’s really organic. I’m looking for interesting voices, a distinctive style of work, and Cedar Lake is built that way as well, so we just seem to find each other. I also want the dancers to be able to dig deeply and grow as artists, and it’s important that they have the chance to work with as many people as possible.

Personally, I have made this a mission because I want to give an awareness to America of what is happening outside of this country, and these are artists that I would have liked to dance with and for myself.

D.G: But you also produce your own work. Why the decision to commission outside work instead of solely producing your own pieces?

BSP: Because we should have the best of both worlds. I want the dancers to experience something else outside of what I produce. It also supports the longevity of the company. It increases our strength as a company, and the dancers individually. And it gives us force in the dance world.

D.G.: Are there any American choreographers that interest you?

BSP: Many! So many! I hope they all will be able to come at some point.

D.G.: The last time you were in Dallas, Cedar Lake put up an installation that left everyone talking, still talking actually. When and how did you make the decision to be a company that not only danced but also worked as performance artists?

BSP: This was also an organic process. We are based in the gallery district in New York, and when we started, I wanted to figure out a way to introduce ourselves to the neighborhood. I am personally interested in happenings, and the director (founder Nancy Laurie) and I agreed that this was something we should pursue. So we found the time to do it.

There is something about bringing different artists that makes what could be a traditional, commonplace performance something unique. It’s always been on my mind to curate a happening, and our neighborhood allows this opportunity.

D.G.: You allowed that show to be videotaped and photographed by the audience. What prompted that decision?

BSP: That’s the world we live in. It’s the Internet age; social media rules. It’s such a powerful tool, and we should use it, because it’s not going anywhere. For me, at these installations, the pictures are part of the performance. It brings in a different angle to the show. It’s a reflection of the audience’s perspective.

The installations break the rules, so why not break all of them.

D.G.: But for your traditional stage performances, you do not allow photographs or videos.

BSP: Right. That’s a different situation. It’s much more formatted and structured. There is a different relationship that is created. So no photos or videos.

D.G.: What’s next for Cedar Lake? Where do you see the company going in the future?

BSP: We are a young company, and I want to define Cedar Lake as a living entity, a live being. Develop our personality and our focus. Give us a reason for being, but it takes time to shape that. And I think we are doing really well. So my main goal is to keep going along that route. And of course, to keep collaborating with other artists and cultivate our audience. I want people to fall in love with Cedar Lake.

Ida Saki
Photo: Paula Lobo

Ida Saki, originally from Dallas, Texas, is working on her first season as a company member with Cedar Lake.

D.G.: How do you juggle being a student at New York University and being a professional dancer?

Ida Saki: Well, I’m almost done at NYU. I have two credits left to go. But I’m currently taking a leave of absence to commit myself to my first season with Cedar Lake. It was a decision that we all [the school and the company] made. We all agreed that it would be the best decision to focus solely on my first season. Luckily, NYU is very accommodating. They fully support us as artists fulfilling opportunities that come along.

But it also comes down to learning how to use your time wisely, and not playing hooky at school. Being honest with your professors and with the people you are working for. It all worked out really well for me. When I first started with Cedar Lake, it was in the summer, so school was out, and then I made the decision to concentrate on the company. And with only a little bit left to go with school, I’m working on ways to finish it all up.

D.G.: So back home in Dallas, where did you go to school and where did you dance?

I.S.: Originally, I went to Plano West High School but then transferred to Booker T. Washington. And I always danced at Dance Industry Performing Arts Center in Plano.

D.G.: How has New York life been treating you?

I.S.: It’s the perfect fit for me. I think anyone can come up to the city and find a place for themselves. Everyone can be happy here. And for me, it was a really easy transition. I love it. It’s pretty much home now.

D.G.: As a young dancer and one of the youngest in Cedar Lake, what has your experience been like?

I.S.: It’s a constant learning experience. I’m 21, and it’s only myself and another dancer, who are the babies of the company. It’s a crazy experience, because we bring all this energy and love for dance, because we just want to learn anything and everything we can. And I think the older company members feed off of that, this new energy, but they are also teaching us how to contain it and use it wisely. It’s a give-and-take between us all. It’s a really great environment to be in.

D.G.: Are you excited to come back to Dallas and perform?

I.S.: I can’t even tell you how excited I am! To come back home and be back at Booker T. and see everyone from my old studio, and have my family and friends in the audience, it means everything. They get to see what I have been working toward the past three years in New York, and what I have always dreamed about.  It’s an amazing feeling.

D.G.: Any advice for young dancers?

I.S.: Stay curious. Curiosity is what is going to help you grow and make you stronger. And always do your research. Continue to learn what is out there and what you want to do, and who you are. Stay passionate.

“Indigo Rose” by Jiří Kylián
Photo: Paula Lobo
Cedar Lake Dancers: Jin Young Won and Jason Kittelberger

In addition to their performance on Saturday, at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, Cedar Lake will be hosting an audition workshop for their summer intensive program, Cedar Lake 360°, on Friday from 5-8 p.m. at Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual and Performing Arts.

Also on Friday, SMU will be hosting a Gaga class taught by dancers Amy Morrow, a recent graduate from the Gaga Teacher Training Program, and Navarra Novy-Williams, a current dancer with Cedar Lake who spent a year dancing with Batsheva Ensemble in Israel. Developed by Ohad Naharin, of Batsheva, the style is based on a series of words that signify particular ways to initiate movement and the parts of the body involved. The technique establishes a flow throughout the entire body that allows complete fluidity, no matter where the movement is initiated.