at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

May 8-12

The best dance is always mysterious, a wordless ritual pagan in its reliance on rhythm and its certainty that gut, muscle, bone, and sinew can communicate.

Lou Conte, who has directed Hubbard Street Dance Company for all of its 12 years, understands this. His achievement is to consistently make or choose dances that have this mystery yet remain accessible. The accessibility can come from something as straightforward as a familiar look, as in Conte’s The 40’s, which draws on popular dances of that period. Or it can have a more mysterious source: an unimpeachable expertise. For whatever reason, just the right lighting, the right costumes, and most important, the right dancing can make an audience feel that, though they may not know what they’ve seen, by God they know they’ve seen something, and will come back for more.

During Hubbard Street’s Civic Center engagement this year, no dance was more ineffable and more appealing than Daniel Ezralow’s Read My Hips. It’s a serious work, obscurely critical and ironic, and loads of fun. The choreography shows traces of folk dance and of rock dancing, but all of it’s big, and much of it’s funny. The score, by Michel Colombier, is eclectic, but its most consistent pulse is a rock beat. Howell Binkley’s lighting is superb, from its initial evocation of explosions–fireworks? bombs?–to a murky overhead wash, to another, warmer overhead effect that brings out the dancers’ flesh–the curves of cheeks and chests, the exact musculature of the upper arms.

The costumes, by Jeffery Jackson, are something. The 13 dancers start out wearing nondescript pants and tops in dusty black; the impression of some obscure militia is enhanced by what sounds like a military snare in the score. Gradually they doff these cover-ups until all are outfitted in black underpants, black knee pads, black socks and shoes, and the women wear black bandeaus. The result is an oddly choppy horizontal effect, as if the stage were inhabited by dotted lines.

A dance called Read My Hips cries out to be interpreted at the same time that it suggests you’re too dense to figure it out. But what the hell: Ezralow seems to explore the relationships of dancers and choreographers to each other and to their audiences. Most of the piece’s several sections end with one or more dancers collapsed on the floor, as if in exhaustion. When the first victim (the supple, buoyant Christine Carrillo) falls, the audience breaks into applause, and a split-second later the other 12 dancers walk back onstage also clapping, then stop as if in surprise and turn to look at us with a deep suspicion. Why are we applauding a performer’s collapse? On some level, that reflects the cruelty of Nijinsky’s pagan tribe in Le sacre du printemps, which requires its sacrificial victim to dance herself to death.

Staged combat also plays a part in Read My Hips. At first I thought of Ezralow’s duet for two men as a prizefight–they shake hands at the beginning. Then I saw that their ballon and stage presence were more like those of professional wrestlers. Despite their force, these two burly men, whose costumes make them look like gladiators, are less antagonists than graceful allies. They race full tilt across the stage at each other, grab each other’s necks, and whirl away like ballerinas pirouetting at top speed. When they toss, catch, and occasionally drop each other, we see not only a magnificent virile energy and spring but remarkable timing.

This level look at professional wrestling is both disarmingly ingenuous and cynically witty. Ezralow’s sense of humor pops up elsewhere in Read My Hips. The dancers form a standing knot, for example, and twiddle their feet to move evenly and quite rapidly across the stage, depositing first one, then another dancer in angular poses, their heads touching the floor. They’re like pieces of lint that have been dropped by a human dust ball–that later picks them up again.

In the work’s most striking section, a man and woman hover above the stage. It’s magic, but of a particularly pedestrian sort–their feet never touch the floor because these two are always standing, walking, or reclining on the other dancers. The privileged two enter standing on the backs of people who are crawling on their hands and knees–and the man’s and woman’s intense stillness (necessary, of course, for them to keep their balance) makes them seem like pagan deities. The others resemble animate boulders or subhuman servants; when they sink to a crouch and then rise back up on their hands and knees, the deities ride them like waves. This section has a remarkable tactile vigor–you seem to feel through your own feet the ridges and curves of the back’s geography–at the same time that it comments, provocatively but obscurely, on elitism and victimization.

The engagement’s other premiere, Margo Sappington’s Mirage, is more traditional, a duet to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s opulent Serenade to Music. According to press materials, the dance is based on the myth of Echo and Narcissus, but I’m not sure I would have guessed: Mirage lacks the myth’s hopelessness. Echo, who can only repeat what others say, is the perfect match for Narcissus, who can love only himself. But the two can never come together because Echo has no substance and Narcissus is imprisoned by his self-love. The man and woman in Mirage do keep each other figuratively–and literally–at arm’s length, but ultimately their interactions are too upbeat and romantic to fit the myth’s deep cynicism about love. A somewhat darker dance would have been less ordinary.

Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck and Josef Patrick performed this difficult, classically oriented adagio piece brilliantly, with all the liquid strength and precision it required. Hilsabeck doesn’t have a natural amplitude–she’s small and tapered–but she filled out the movement with an unexpected lushness, and her boyishness made her seem a suitable object for someone who could love his own reflection.

Step Out of Love, Sappington’s 1987 work for Hubbard Street, demonstrates just how versatile a choreographer she is. My male companion called this piece for five women “menacing”–and it is obviously brutal and coarse on purpose. The original score, by Steve Forsyth, buzzes and pounds angrily; an electrical current seems to pass from one woman to the next or activate all five at once. When Carrillo, Claire Bataille, Daniela Panessa, Lynn Sheppard, and Leslie Stevens high kick across the floor in unison, their legs brandished over their heads like stilettos, or roll their shoulders forward and run their hands down their thighs, they project all the heat and venom of black widows.

The dancers’ brilliant rhythmic sense in Step Out of Love is typical of Hubbard Street. The other works on the program–Line Drive, excerpts from Rose From the Blues, and Shakti–were all enlivened by that same instinctual, driven, and disciplined sense of rhythm. Hubbard Street’s stable of talented choreographers may provide the vocabulary and syntax, but the dancers supply the punctuation–and their choices are inspired.

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