at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

March 12, 14, 15, and 16

How far can Hubbard Street travel, how many different styles can they tuck under their belts? So far there’s been no sign that any challenge is too great. Last week they offered a program of dances that were often light-years away from each other (a similar program will be shown March 22 and 23): compare any Twyla Tharp dance with any Daniel Ezralow, or any Tharp with Lynne Taylor-Corbett. Yet there’s a family resemblance between Tharp’s Baker’s Dozen and Lou Conte’s signature work, The 40’s.

With its hotshot lighting and explosive score, Ezralow’s Read My Hips (1990) is a good opener–it’s like walking into a party and having real fireworks go off. But the dance doesn’t hold up well after a couple of viewings: its sections are utterly distinct emotionally and, as far as I can tell, thematically–they’re stitched together with sight gags, joke entrances and exits, and crazy sound and lighting effects. It’s a gag dance, with plenty of good one-liners but no direction.

Worse, on this program Read My Hips seemed sterile and impersonal, the kind of dance that could be performed by any competent company of a dozen or so. Part of that sterility is that deadpan performance style: in Ezralow’s conception, dance doesn’t seem to be something people do, it’s something that just happens to them. Furthermore, the choreography isolates the dancers from each other. With the exceptions of a wrestlers’ duet for two men–which is still gut wrenching to watch–and a section where dancers ride on each other’s backs, the dancers rarely touch or engage each other in any way other than the occasional glare. Read My Hips is a dance for its time–and only for its time. If it’s around in ten years, it’ll be as an artifact of the anomic 80s.

Tharp made Baker’s Dozen for her own company in 1979, but you’d never say it was an artifact of the 70s. For one thing its physical look and emotional tone belong to a still more distant time, an effect that comes partly from the score–the piano music of Willie “The Lion” Smith–and partly from the softness and humanity of the dancing. Even the title recalls a long-gone generosity: when was the last time Dunkin’ Donuts gave you a baker’s dozen? But this dance is not dated, and I don’t think it ever will be.

Baker’s Dozen can be enjoyed for years because Tharp’s choreography has so many nooks and crannies, so many clever asides that slip by almost subliminally. I find that her dances pit the left side of the brain against the right, and Baker’s Dozen is no exception. The right side wants to let music and dance melt together, for an experience as sensuous and mindless as chocolate dissolving on the tongue. Meanwhile the left brain is urging, “There’s a structure here. You’ve got to find it.” Between one side of the brain and the other the dance slips by in no time.

Baker’s Dozen is a work for six couples that’s divided into four sections–sort of. The first section introduces one couple after another in a steady stream and keeps the dancers in pairs, but later sections are a kaleidoscope of solos, duets, threesomes, foursomes, and sixsomes introduced by a tumbling panoply of false entrances and exits that smudge the beginnings and ends of sections. The second section breaks the couples up into trios (mostly), and the dancing marks the accents and arrests of the tango music; the pace is stepped up in the third, with a few spots of unison that stand out because most of the time couples, threesomes, and quartets are switching partners faster than the eye can see; the fourth features several unobtrusive solos slipped into duets and ensembles that drift apart and reconvene as gently as clouds in the wind.

The dancing is soft, the partnering considerate. Dancers may slide down each other’s backs and legs, may grab each other’s ankles or shoulders; but no one who’s picked up is ever put down other than carefully (note the many times in Ezralow’s choreography that partners are simply dropped–for comic effect). Sometimes the partners in Baker’s Dozen fit together as snugly as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; and because the roles were originally tailored to the sizes, shapes, and personalities of Tharp’s company, it must have been difficult for the Hubbard Street dancers to step into them. But the dance is clearly about shifting partners–about new juxtapositions of noses and knees, new ways for cheeks to fit into the hollows of necks–and to that extent it can’t be much more difficult a fit today than it was to Tharp’s company in 1979.

Watching Hubbard Street in Baker’s Dozen, we seem to see real people doing real things, not dancers on a stage in choreography they’ve done hundreds of times before: all 12 dancers were fresh and refreshingly themselves. Alberto J. Arias is perfect for the solo that opens the fourth section: his small, rounded body and self-effacement give this solo, with its hammy sidelong glances, the charm of a child who thinks he’s hot stuff. The off-kilter shoulders and dipped hips of Claire Bataille’s part are transformed by her musicality and connection to the floor into something more lyrical than jazzy. Amy Nicole Heggins is a statuesque find; and Josef Patrick, Krista Swenson, and Frank Chaves are happy dogs–you can almost see their tongues hanging out.

Still, Baker’s Dozen is not an easy dance: it has so much detail for the dancers to master and the audience to catch–a head cocked during a turn, for instance. If those details are not caught, Tharp’s work may seem monotonous. Unison movement comes only seldom; and because unison offers the kind of big bang that focuses audience attention, the brief bits here are teasing. But the work’s musicality and invention and careful structure, which the dancers must nail absolutely, make any challenge to the audience worth the effort.

I saw Tharp’s The Fugue (1970) in rehearsal last summer and in its Hubbard Street premiere at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, so I felt I was meeting an old friend. Hubbard Street trained two casts of three, one of women and one of men, but only the men’s cast performed The Fugue in Chicago, as there were some recent injuries among the women’s cast. The men did it more confidently than they had last summer, with greater weight and decision; but what continues to fascinate me about The Fugue are the contradictions the dance draws out of the Hubbard Street performers as they struggle to fill their roles. I see the courage it takes for the shy Matthew Rivera not to retreat; the force and manliness of Ron De Jesus in a role that relies on the lyrical, circular quality of his movement; and a straight-arrow concentration and seriousness in the jovial Josef Patrick.

Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s Diary (1978) couldn’t be less like Tharp’s work, which is about nothing but itself–its emotion comes only from the pleasure of seeing it performed. The music for Diary is three songs, sung and played on the piano onstage by the composer, Judith Lander; they tell a story that the dancing illustrates, in two solos and a duet. And I mean illustrates–one of the dancers actually lip-synchs the words. The last song especially is grade-A schmaltz, but to hear the music sung live is undeniably affecting. And given the florid words and music, the choreography is blessedly spare. Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck and Alberto Arias do much to transmute this fool’s gold: they’re well suited to their roles and to each other. Hilsabeck’s dancing is so clean, almost martial, that what could be sentimental seems nearly astringent, and Arias has a gentle inwardness that lends itself well to the moody second song and provides an unusual contrast to Hilsabeck’s strength and definition in the duet.

At least the dancers have faces in Diary–as they do in all the other dances here except Read My Hips. Personality may be Hubbard Street’s long suit, the composite personality of people handpicked both to fit in and to be themselves. That personality is something artistic director Lou Conte has labored to perfect; it’s something Tharp covets. And it’s something not easily replaced. This is Hilsabeck’s last Hubbard Street engagement in Chicago, and when she’s gone from Conte’s The 40’s, who will Geoff Myers toss so lightly to the rafters? The dancers are what transform the cookie-cutter costumes and unison choreography of The 40’s–the dancers and Conte’s nostalgia for gentle good humor, which he also shares with Tharp.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eileen Glenn.