Aszure Barton's BUSK, part of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's RE/TURN program at the Harris Theater Credit: Michelle Reid

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, whose last public performance was at the Harris Theater in November of 2019, were in rehearsals on the Harris stage in preparation for their spring season in March 2020 as a citywide lockdown was announced. Following more than a year of virtual programming, the company reemerges at the Harris November 18-21 in RE/TURN under the helm of new artistic director Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, with four new dancers in a company of fourteen. 

As the name of the program indicates, the company seems to be both undergoing reflection by revisiting past works and also pivoting towards the possibility of something new. The result is promising: in a mixed bill that offers a premiere by Jermaine Maurice Spivey alongside two older works in the repertory, Nacho Duato’s Jardí Tancat (1983) and Aszure Barton’s BUSK (2009), the evening is full, lush, and dazzling.  

Andrew Murdock and Alysia Johnson in Nacho Duato’s Jardí Tancat. Credit: Michelle Reid

RE/TURN
Sat 11/20, 8 PM and Sun 11/21, 3 PM; Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, 312-334-7777, hubbardstreetdance.com, $15-$110.

The program begins with a stage set with a stark surround of loosely spaced sticks and the stomp of dancers’ feet on the floor as they rise up, then drive their weight into the earth. Jardí Tancat, which means “enclosed garden” in Catalan, was choreographed by Duato for Nederlands Dans Theater while he was still a dancer there, with set and costumes designed by him as well. Set to the mournful songs of Spanish singer Maria del Mar Bonet and rooted into the ground with wind-swift partnering, the movement is balletic in its formality and in its presentation of solos, duets, trios, and ensemble work—perhaps also in its commitment to beauty in its portrayal of the suffering and endurance of those who work the land. It is a somewhat somber start and slightly bloodless in this rendition, a definitive reference to the near past of a difficult year and the further past of HSDC’s repertoire and development alongside NDT.

From the earth tones of the first piece, the program continues into the futuristic vision of Spivey’s The Seen, who created the choreography and the sound design in collaboration with HSDC’s dancers. In the corners of the stage are microphones, through which the dancers take turns to express sibilants and consonants and passages on seeing, being seen, the seen, and the scene. The movement is sinuous, almost shapeless at times, mycelial or amoeboid, all in the silvery sheen of costumes by Jordan Ross, under lights designed by Laurel Shoemaker that shift the scene from black and white to ghostly blue to color. One wonders when watching whether this piece is more about being seen or being heard, the poetry spoken being somehow more defining than the movement language—an admirable risk for a company of virtuosic movers. 

David Schultz and Jacqueline Burnett in Jermaine Maurice Spivey’s The Seen. Credit: Michelle Reid

Though the intermissions (there are two) are at least as long as the pieces preceding them, it is not long before that celebrated virtuosity is unleashed in full force in Barton’s BUSK, which has surely never been more brilliantly manifested than this moment. The piece begins with a peculiarly large figure (Elliott Hammans) descending a set of stairs to become a man in an oversized suit, a Chaplinesque fellow rapidly cycling through his acts, losing and getting his hat, speaking to an unseen world of delights and horrors, yearning at top speed. The ensemble emerges around him, all in costumes (by Michelle Jank) that sometimes look like hoodies and sometimes like monks’ cowls—and they inhabit these imaginary spaces and more on a mostly dark, mostly bare stage, making themselves into a raucous gang, a mass of gargoyles, a sea of mouths, a flock. 

Solos by Andrew Murdock and Abdiel Figueroa Reyes and a duet by Jacqueline Burnett and Michael Garcia express abandon in its most disciplined form, pure energy expelled fearlessly through every atom of the flesh, without a molecule of oxygen held in reserve for the future, marvelous and marvelously unselfconscious in pure movement. The sudden revelation of the body when it briefly appears from beneath the voluminous folds of fabric becomes a poignant reminder of the muscle and the mortality of these dancers, who must become—and are—larger than life through their art. It’s within profound technical precision that Hubbard Street dancers seem to most define themselves as individuals and as a company—the absoluteness, the clarity, and the martial exactitude of the movement give us a glimpse of the sublime in the human, fragile but immortal in an instant.