at the Auditorium Theatre

October 27-29

Chicagoans going to the Hubbard Street Dance Company hoping to see tits and ass in the great Broadway tradition will be shocked. Long Chicago’s most virtuosic, popular, and glamorous company, Hubbard Street now has a new, wide-ranging repertoire that challenges the dancers’ established strengths and defies the expectations of their established audience. In this, their most audacious program ever, they dance pretty dances, horrifying dances, funny dances, cold dances.

Mary Ward’s Champagne, performed in this company premiere by Shannon D. Mitchell, Rick Hilsabeck, and Ron De Jesus, is a lovely, lissome dance as effortlessly effervescent as its title. Awash in Ken Bowen’s soft rosy light and wearing Ward’s own simple, festive costumes, the three dancers begin standing one behind the other in deep plies. Restrained bursts of energy lift an arm, a torso, an elbow, eventually rippling side to side and allowing the dancers to glimpse each other. One is seized by agitation; when the others restrain him, they are overtaken as well. Certain movement images recur-popping out of line, a gentle releve enlivened by a twist of the pelvis, a surprising drop back into plie.

Set to an innocuous, melodic score by Schonherz and Scott, Champagne makes much of its contrasts of scale and color: small, swift steps alternate with great turns and wheeling balances; languid arms and mazy wrists oppose a quick bow over a straight leg and flexed foot. Champagne nods in the direction of narrative, a dip toward the literal when the dancers exhibit a momentary tipsiness–an off-balance balance and gesture of “Oooh, my head”–before it closes with a reference to its opening image. A joy to watch, Champagne is about qualities of energy, balance, and space in choreography, of the joy of dancing and rapport between dancers in performance.

The Kitchen Table, choreographed by Bill Cratty in 1981 for the Jose Limon Dance Company, is a distinctly 20th-century ballet–a story of human relationships, told in a modern-dance idiom, accompanied by relentless percussion and utter silence, on a stripped, suggestive stage. While almost all the dancing occurs within arm’s reach of the table of the title, the dance’s psychic reach extends deeper into shadow than most of us care or dare to venture. The dancers in Hubbard Street’s premiere performance–Sandi Cooksey as the Mother, Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck as the Daughter, Rick Hilsabeck as the Father, and Frank Chaves as the Lover–focus on the innate power and communicativeness of each movement, which make these archetypal figures live. These embodied archetypes give the events of the dance–its familial machinations and manipulations–the sense of inevitability of a Greek tragedy and the specificity of tonight’s news on Channel Two.

The dance begins with the lover sitting at the kitchen table reading his newspaper, the daughter and mother beside him. The mother shudders and leans toward her child, who recoils and jumps out of her chair. The daughter’s exaggerated gestures of chopping and dicing direct her energy downward through the table’s nonexistent top again and again; she does not so much give in to the pull of gravity as amplify it. The other two don’t respond to the daughter at all–they cuddle, waltz, embrace–until they happen to see her within their table. She lies there as in a crib, legs circling spasmodically; the parents’ forearms arc back and forth as if dancing on the Good Ship Lollipop.

The next section chronicles the daughter’s days. Lying under the table, her body seized by alternating spasms of frenzied movement and pained rigidity, she reaches upward; she relaxes briefly, ankles circling lazily; her gestures suggest tossing stray toys and scrubbing floors. She stands, realizes that she is trapped by the table’s frame, struggles briefly; finally, in sudden silence, she steps over the frame and out of the table.

Next, we see the mother in the traditional feminine role, arms plunging in gestures reminiscent of folding batter, baking bread, sewing. The shudder that so bothered the daughter at the very beginning reappears. Tiny, rapid steps string together gestures suggesting a chat on the phone, a nibble during dinner preparations. The father enters, and the force of his extending and contracting legs diminishes and dominates her: she salutes, runs, kneels at his command; he strides around the table, points an accusing finger, and clasps his hands around his head.

The daughter returns changed: a torso whipping with considerable force supplants the delving, domestic gestures. The mother points an accusing finger of her own. Violence erupts, stopping only when the lover appears; the daughter and lover move away, leaving father and mother arm in arm. The four dancers circle the table, shifting alliances and changing places. The lover steps easily in and out of the table frame, the father with battements like goose steps. The lovers’ duet is as often haunted and hunted as sensuous, languid lifts appearing amid hunched plies and floor work, and closes with the lover pulling the daughter across the stage–once again lying on her back, legs circling and cycling. It is therefore no surprise to find the family reconstituted and re-enmeshed–the mother sitting between the lover and the daughter and shuddering harder than ever–in the closing moments of the dance.

(One school of thought in criticism holds that all poems–and by extension all dances–mean all things all at once. If ever anyone wanted to believe that, I did when I found that I had watched all of The Kitchen Table confusing the mother and the daughter: I saw a wonderful, morbid tale of incest and domination, but I don’t really think that is the dance Bill Cratty made. Fascinating, but entirely beside the point.)

The Kitchen Table is a powerful, disturbing, dramatic work. It is no less a surprise to see Hubbard Street dancing such a dark and difficult work than to see how beautifully Chaves, Cooksey, Hilsabeck, and Skillman Hilsabeck realize a movement style so entirely foreign to Hubbard Street’s norm. Cratty’s dance vocabulary owes much to Limon technique–its concern with gravity, spirals, suspension, isolation of weight–a vocabulary radically different from the refined balletic jazz that has long been the company’s bread and butter.

Margo Sappington’s And Now This and Step Out of Love have been in repertory long enough to “settle” on the company. And Now This shows to advantage not only Sappington’s considerable ability to knit and unknit groups of dancers but the company’s virtuosity; they now wear the piece like a favorite pair of jeans. And Now This is pleasant and bland compared with Sappington’s brilliant, beautifully abrasive Step Out of Love. Cooksey, Lynn Sheppard, Daniela Panessa, Mitchell, and Skillman Hilsabeck dance the piece with greater conviction and more ease than ever before, lending the dance an even keener edge, a more polished edginess. A program combining all these with David Parsons’s hilarious The Envelope and artistic director Lou Conte’s jocular The 40’s testifies to Hubbard Street’s amazing versatility and their breathtaking virtuosity.