The Sky Was Different Credit: Tobin Del Cuore

Jacqueline Burnett, statuesque, iconic. She stands, as if chiseled into the air, with a stoic determination, perched on a hollow cylinder, the expression on her face no different than if she were rooted in the ground. In a dark room in an old house—midwestern, modernist—Andrew Murdock makes conversation with a shadow. He speaks with his mouth and his hands. He speaks as if he sees the others, but he does not see the others. The house has the colors of the sky at sunset. The colors are brought in by the costumes and the humans that carry them on their bodies. In the oven is a single potato.

“We finished last season in June with Inside/Out, our annual program where dancers choreograph on each other,” says Burnett, who has danced with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago for 12 years. “It’s always fun to have a show where we don’t have a preconceived notion of the final product. It’s what all of us create together.” The principles of Inside/Out and the problems of pandemic productivity guide Hubbard Street’s current season, which brings back several of the company’s former dancers—Rena Butler, Jonathan Fredrickson, Penny Saunders, Robyn Mineko Williams, and Connie Shiau—to create new work for the company. 

“We’re calling the season a virtual homecoming,” says associate artistic director Jessica Tong, who joined Hubbard Street 2 in 2004 and the main company in 2007 and became rehearsal director for the company upon her retirement from the stage in 2017. “It’s a way to reach out to our family that’s been out in the world, reconnect with them, and see how they’ve been reacting to this time right now. They temporarily called Hubbard Street their home, but they are so diverse in their voice, experiences, perspective. They’re familiar with the company, the organization, and how we work, but they speak such different languages.” 

Fredrickson, who left Hubbard Street to join Tanztheater Wuppertal in 2015, directed the process for The Sky Was Different remotely from Germany. “Pina [Bausch] used questions to drive the dancers [at Tanztheater Wuppertal],” he says. “I can’t say my process is the same because I didn’t work with her, but I gave prompts to the dancers that they could follow in their own way, whether in movement, text, or images. It felt appropriate over Zoom, where it’s extremely difficult to build from the ground up and demonstrate through this little tiny camera on your computer. And we can work simultaneously, as opposed to it all being from my side. It’s difficult to create a film over Zoom. You need the assistance of the people in the space. They can see their surroundings and show me what’s available instead of me looking myself. I can only see the box they gave me. It could only be frustrating if I had decided to take complete control over it, but luckily for me, I’m not that type of person. The process led to this wonderful collaboration, where I didn’t have to have all the answers.”

Among his collaborators is fellow HSDC alumnus Tobin Del Cuore, founder of Brooklyn-based film and production company Imagination + Muscle, who codirected and filmed The Sky Was Different at the Schweikher House in Schaumburg and at C5 Create with No Limits. Del Cuore began making films as a dancer in the company—initially with the specific aim of sharing the company’s experiences with a friend and colleague from a distance. “I was close to Cheryl Mann—we were dancing together all the time. She was exploring photography and encouraged me to explore moving images, so I got a camcorder and started playing around. I made a tribute for Cheryl when she stayed home from tour—it was the first time she had knee surgery and couldn’t come with us.” HSDC encouraged him to continue, commissioning a series of travel videos for the company’s next tour, as well as video portraits of the dancers for a gala the following year. Although Del Cuore has created a few additional promotional videos for the company since leaving the company in 2007, he says of The Sky Was Different, “It’s a significant return to the company for me in a way I hadn’t experienced before.” 

Hubbard Street has recently changed both leadership and location; artistic director Glenn Edgerton stepped down at the end of the 2019-20 season (the company is currently conducting a search for his replacement), and Lou Conte Dance Studios, their longtime rehearsal home, shut down in April. For a company that relies on constant change in repertory to remain contemporary, the idea of return is almost a contradiction. 

Del Cuore notes, “The space has changed. They’re not at 1147 [W. Jackson] anymore, and that was shocking to me, as I spent my whole Hubbard Street career in that building. It feels like a whole new company, especially because of the leadership of Jessica Tong and [artistic liaison] Jonathan Alsberry. It’s super collaborative, and that was really nice to come into. The company had this space and this clear way of acquiring work, rehearsing it, touring it, and now they’re in that changeover. As precarious as it is to be an arts organization in a pandemic right now, I see a lot of hope. It feels like it’s returning more to its roots because it doesn’t have a home right now. It’s an opportunity for rebirth, starting back where it used to be.”

The flexibility and esprit de corps of its dancers may be the company’s greatest assets in this moment. “It takes a team,” says Tong. “We’re navigating such new territory in general, I think everybody is helping each other figure it out. It’s been a rollercoaster. How do we do this new thing and do it the way we want to do it but we don’t know how to do it yet? Identity-wise we are at a sea change right now. We have to be. There’s no ignoring the current climate, and what we have is the great opportunity and privilege to say and put out there. What are we tackling? Who are we bringing in? We want to keep pushing into the next phase of our evolution.” Of her devotion to the company, she says, “I wanted to be different people and experience different languages and do it as best I could, learning from people who lived it. I wanted to dance with wonderful dancers. I’m so fortunate I got to do that. It’s the company you keep. People worked so hard with a common intention, but we didn’t need to all be the same. That should never change.”

Focusing on the company’s dancers was Fredrickson’s primary intention for his commission. “[Before the pandemic] my plan was to come to Chicago and do interviews with the dancers, and there we’d find something. I have an idea of where to start always, but of what it will be in the end, I never have an idea. I’m always excited to go on a ride, on a journey,” he says. When the project became remote, he began the same way, with a simple question posed over Zoom: “How are you?” (“That’s a loaded baked potato question,” replied Alyssa Allen in the chat). “We kept going from there,” he says. “The pleasure of working with Hubbard Street dancers is their availability and openness and good spirit, their ability to dive in.”

Even from a distance, Fredrickson found a way to bring himself back to Hubbard Street—through Murdock, who remained separate from the other dancers throughout the process, including the filming. “Everyone was working in the studio or in their own place, but Andrew always stayed at home. I related to this person alone in his room—I felt that I was him: when everybody else was in Chicago, I was in my box in Germany.”

To finish, or perhaps begin, a dialogue on The Sky Was Different:

Irene Hsiao: Jacqueline is often balancing—on a pipe, on high heels—can you tell me about that? 

Jonathan Fredrickson: My answer isn’t the answer. We’re caught in this delicate place, at any moment you can topple over. A precocious, precautious—what’s the word? 


Precarious place. I like what that does with the tension. It sounds scientific but maybe it isn’t.

It’s a powerful image because most of us feel stuck right now, and it’s a lot of work to even stay in place—

I like that. I think that’s beautiful. I absolutely agree.  v