There’s much to swoon over at Cedar Lake’s new theater space in the heart of the Chelsea gallery district: 7,000 square feet of performance space in an unconverted warehouse that once housed Annie Liebowitz’s photography studio; a youthful corps of able-bodied dancers risking life and limb in athletic displays of modern ballet; a funhouse ride of a set, which keeps the performers pinned to the side walls but has the audience spinning around on a revolve. That, plus a high-tech light-and-sound show — and a couple of concert violinists. Given the setup, it’s too bad the first show, “Raw,” is a bummer.
Cedar Lake’s artistic director, L.J. Ballard, has over-reached with this multigenre performance piece, which takes as its theme “the primitive spirit and its will to survive.” Translated into performance terms, this spiel means 18 brief scenes in which characters confront death. Or put other characters to death. Or simply meditate upon death.
Between Ryan O’Gara’s sepulchral lighting and Adam Larsen’s violent back-wall video projections, not to mention the jangling sound effects contrived by Brett Jarvis, the sense of death is palpable in this dark, tomblike playing space. Of the promised “survival,” there are precious few signs.
Taken individually, the scenes range from the unexceptional (a monologue from “Othello”) to the grotesque (a soldier is tortured to death while hanging from the ceiling beams). Some are theatrical fragments, like Greg Mudd’s “The Thaw,” a slice-of-death drama in which two quarrelsome butchers lock themselves into a meat freezer. Others are essentially tableaux, like Leila Nelson’s “Crimson Scripture,” in which a blood-soaked murderess sinks into a bathtub and gracefully commits suicide.
Although the cumulative effect of all this death and dying is unrelentingly grim, the scenes don’t follow any discernible pattern or build to a clear and satisfying thematic conclusion. And because the company is conspicuously challenged in the acting department, the segments of the piece that work best are the ones in which the dance ensemble comes to the rescue, as they do in the stylized rape depicted in Nelson’s “Initiation.”
Indeed, Benoit Swan Pouffer’s sinuous (and strenuous) choreography is the real attraction here and the lure for future productions in this undeniably raw but extremely exciting performance space.