On February 4, after a yearlong search, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago announced the appointment of Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell to the role of artistic director. A native of Baltimore, Fisher-Harrell began dancing at the age of 14. “My generation as a teenager was MTV. Michael Jackson was in his Thriller heyday. Beat It came out, Billie Jean. Solid Gold was on TV—Fame—Flashdance. I was surrounded by dance in popular culture in a really tangible way that was linked to adolescence. I had never danced when I was a child. I ran track, I played baseball, touch football—anything that you would see a boy doing, I wanted to do it. But with dance being in the forefront of pop culture, I thought, ‘I want to do that. I want to be in a Michael Jackson video!’ I had heard of a performing arts high school like Fame—we had one here in Baltimore. It was like, ‘No way, we got a Fame school? Ma, I’m going!'”
Despite her lack of formal training, go she did. During her audition, she played Lionel Richie’s Running with the Night—”and I danced. There were some cartwheels in there, some splits. If you asked my teachers, they were probably in hysterics. It was probably hilarious. But what they could probably see was that I was musical and passionate and flexible. So, hey, she can be taught. They took a chance on me and took me into the school.”
At the Baltimore School for the Arts, Fisher-Harrell first encountered the dance companies that would become her future when alumni of the school returned to teach master classes. “We had an alum who came and taught master classes. His father took us on a trip to Philly to see Hubbard Street at the Annenberg. The company was astounding. They were the sharpest, most dynamic thing I had ever seen.” Two years later, as a freshman studying dance at Juilliard, Fisher-Harrell spotted an audition notice for the company in Backstage magazine. Somewhat disenchanted with her studies (“There was more of an investigation of the technique, which, if I had been more mature, I would have appreciated, but in my immature artistic mind, I thought, ‘Hey man, I just need to be on stage! I gotta go. I gotta 5-6-7!'”), she gladly took the leap. “I went to this audition, and they accepted me!”
After her New York audition, Lou Conte, founder and artistic director of HSDC, flew Fisher-Harrell to Chicago. Of her first experience taking class with the company on the stage of the Civic Opera House in 1989, Fisher-Harrell recalls, “Hubbard Street was this dynamic force in Chicago. You could feel the excitement. I saw them perform that night—that was super intimidating! I thought, ‘You want me to be onstage with them? OK! These are the bee’s knees right here!’ If you had the opportunity to be part of something this special, you definitely wanted to do it.”
Under Conte’s direction, Fisher-Harrell cultivated the discipline that characterizes HSDC to this day. “He was tough, tough, tough! Tough is an understatement! I thank God I had my professional start where the standards were so high—not just what happened onstage, but how we took class and how we rehearsed, and how we rehearsed everything full out, and how we went to every venue and did a full-out rehearsal and a full-out show. That was my work ethic as I knew it, for my entire dance career. Just be excellent. Just do the whole thing full-out, and there’ll be no surprises when the curtain goes up.”
As a member of the company in the early 1990s, Fisher-Harrell witnessed Hubbard Street’s first encounter with contemporary European choreography when the company performed at the Holland Dance Festival, during which they shared a dance studio with Nederlands Dans Theater. “We took classes together, we got a chance to watch them perform, they got a chance to watch us perform. I believe that was Lou’s first experience seeing Jiří Kylián‘s work. Seeing those European masters of contemporary dance was spellbinding. He was really interested in trying to acquire some work”—an interest that would lead Conte to bring Kylián, Nacho Duato, and others to create and set works that have since become icons of HSDC’s repertoire.
In 1992, she joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, under the direction of Judith Jamison, who coached Fisher-Harrell in many of the roles that Ailey had created for her and whose approach serves as a model for directing a company with a distinct legacy. “With both Lou and Judy, you could feel that you better come to the marley with it. You better come correct, or don’t come at all, as the kids say. The stakes were high for both of them. That expectation of excellence, I definitely carry that everywhere,” she notes. “I saw [Jamison] juggle multiple plates as a fundraiser, a spokesperson for the company, brilliantly and articulately pushing the message of Mr. Ailey’s legacy, keeping the caliber of the company, and keeping the integrity of the legacy together while pushing it forward. I want to honor the company I joined in 1989. I want to honor the company I saw as a junior in high school.”
While performing with Ailey, Fisher-Harrell also began to teach dance, developing her skill as an instructor in community classes during outreach events in schools, prisons, and nursing homes, as well as teaching company class starting in her very first year in the company. “[Associate artistic director] Masazumi Chaya said, ‘Linda-san, I want you to teach company class.’ I said, ‘This company?’ He said, ‘Yeah! Of course this company!'” she says. “I have Desmond Richardson in my face, and I’m supposed to warm him up! But I loved it. After I could get my heart out of my throat, I enjoyed it.”
Upon leaving the stage after 13 years with Ailey, Fisher-Harrell honed her skills as an educator, noting that she has taught professional dancers to “middle schoolers learning their right from their left.”
“I have a deep appreciation of our differences of learning,” she says. “I can’t wait to work with the Hubbard Street dancers to see what kind of learners they are, how they digest and process information, and how it comes out on stage in front of an audience. I think it’s going to help me become a little more understanding as an artistic director and help me to lead a dancer to where they need to be.”
On the future of the company, Fisher-Harrell is as ambitious in intention as she is cautious to reveal details during the uncertainty of the pandemic. “There’s so much diversity to dive into—and when I say that, I’m not talking about appearance or race—I’m talking about the different stories we can tell, the ways of moving that need to be explored,” she says. “I really just want to connect with the audience. It might mean that they get punched in their gut. ‘That thing hurt my feelings, that resonated, that made me question certain things.’ I want to connect in a way that’s tangible.
“Hubbard Street has been on an interesting journey since its inception. The entire journey makes up Hubbard Street. The journey is like a train. When it started out, it had a very jazzy base to it. It picked up audience members and passengers with that. It journeyed on and became something more contemporary: we did David Parsons, Daniel Ezralow, Lynne Taylor-Corbett, Margo Sappington, and we picked up audience along the way. We kept going and did more contemporary European—Jiří Kylián, Nacho Duato, Ohad Naharin—and we picked up passengers along the way. So I want us all to stay on the train! Glenn [Edgerton, HSDC artistic director from 2009 to 2020] was more focused on European choreographers. I don’t want to throw that away. I want to connect with the dancers—what was amazing to dance? What was really delicious to dance? Let’s do that again!”
On March 1, Fisher-Harrell will assume the reins as the fourth artistic director of Hubbard Street, a company in continuous evolution as it enters its 43rd season, 20 years after Lou Conte retired as director. When asked what Chicagoans should know about her, she replies, “I have children! Did you know that? I had my oldest daughter while I was in the Ailey company. I was one of the few dancers who traveled around with a child. I’ve had to balance family life along with my artistry. I would not give up one for the other. My family gives me something to dance about. After I had my daughter, I saw dance differently. I knew my career was probably more short-lived because of the balance of it. So any time I had the opportunity to get onstage, I was not going to take it for granted. I left it all on the marley.” v