Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

at the Auditorium Theatre, through May 3

By Laura Molzahn

It’s not easy throwing a party, especially one that lasts nearly three weeks and involves some 25,000 guests. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is throwing a doozy, celebrating 20 years of entertaining dance enthusiasts in Chicago and around the world. Shouldn’t we be giving them a party?

Many marriages and nations don’t last 20 years. There are longer-lived dance troupes, but few that show Hubbard Street’s vitality and continued growth. True, the dances that remain in their repertory have a certain family resemblance, but this year’s premieres show the company’s willingness, under the guidance of artistic director Lou Conte and general manager Gail Kalver, to step out of its jazz-dance, Broadway-inflected origins into new territory. What remains a constant is not the nature of the choreography, which has shifted over the years, but the dancers’ talent. The dancers themselves have changed, of course–failing to replenish the ranks means death in an art form that survives on the strength of the performers’ strength.

Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato’s sextet Jardi tancat (“Enclosed Garden”), a company premiere first performed in 1983, ventures further into modern dance than Hubbard Street has gone before, and not just in the moves themselves. The choreography is often “unlovely” in characteristic modern-dance style–flexed feet, flexed elbows, hunched shoulders. But more than any other Hubbard Street piece (with the possible exception of Twyla Tharp’s The Fugue), it makes me feel dirt under my feet, by contrast revealing how urban much of Hubbard Street’s repertoire is, how it breathes the air of the theater and ballroom and nightclub. Jardi tancat feels grounded in nature and the outdoors, with its suggestions of planting and hoeing, of peasants, and of folk music in Maria Del Mar Bonet’s haunting singing.

Jardi tancat also has a distinct emotional trajectory. It begins with the dancers crouched in a clump on the floor, an inhuman collection of buttocks and backs. Their initial movements have the bursting, organic look of plants growing, at least as they appear in time-lapse photography. Unison dancing eventually breaks up as, one by one, the dancers leave the group to stand at the borders of the “garden”–waist-high wooden spikes at odd intervals–and gaze out. Isolated and distant from us and from one another, they convey a sense of unwilling entrapment and longing. The music begins, and the sections following–especially one for the three men and another for two women–make us think of God’s injunction to Adam and Eve after the fall, that men shall toil for their bread and women bring forth children in pain.

Yet the movement begins to belie that sadness. Soft, fluid, and light as a breeze, it expresses the joy that endures despite limitations and sorrow. The three male-female duets that bring the dance to a close are transcendent, all circles and continual motion as the women are tossed and retrieved or turned in cartwheels or slip like fish through the net of a man’s encircling arms. The final duet is especially expansive and free, as if the dancers had entirely escaped entrapment. The piece ends with a coda, however, that returns all six dancers to the floor, to their initial poses as earthbound, almost insentient beings.

Jardi tancat made me rethink Duato’s Na floresta (“The Forest”), which seemed to me a tame, pretty piece when Hubbard Street premiered it last year. Though not as affecting as Jardi tancat, partly because the music is less passionate and more disjointed, it has the same reverence for the natural world and much the same easy, effortless-looking movement. Jardi tancat also made me see the good in another of this year’s premieres, a trio by the young choreographer and former Hubbard Street dancer Mario Alberto Zambrano. Though on opening night Link suffered by comparison to Jardi tancat, which it followed, it comes remarkably close to the musicality of Duato’s pieces, especially with Jennita Russo in the female role.

The third company premiere, Jiri Kylian’s 1986 Sechs Tanze (“Six Dances”), made me appreciate the humor of Hubbard Street’s other humorous dances–their comic surprises, which can easily seem old hat to longtime viewers. Such pieces better retain their entertainment value in the reflected light of Kylian’s dance.

Like the geeky, officious spies of David Parsons’s The Envelope and the sleek, anonymous sex symbols of Daniel Ezralow’s Read My Hips, the eight dancers of Sechs Tanze are not quite human: the women are moppets in frizzed-out hair and tarty slips, the men comic emissaries in ill-fitting 18th-century wigs, like shower caps with little tails. Nor do the dancers’ movements make them seem any more dignified, conveying mostly comic bewilderment, fear, and attempts to control others. Reclining on their sides, they flop like fish out of water; men hold and pull women by their skirts or manipulate them like puppets on invisible strings; heads jiggle on vertebrae as if the dancers were dolls with broken necks. Dividing the six sections are interludes featuring stiff, black evening gowns that travel across the stage on their own, perhaps with a dancer draped over them, or sport swords, which the dancers sometimes brandish. A visual and historical counterpoint to the “six dances”–the performers’ white slips and knee pants seem to come from an earlier era–these interludes are mysterious but hardly thought provoking.

What saves Sechs Tanze from mere silliness, allowing us to accept even the strange interludes as an irreducible part of its comic universe, is Kylian’s wonderfully musical, buoyant choreography. He captures all the delight at Mozart’s heart, playing with the strata of his compositions, following his fillips note for note. It takes musically sophisticated, eager, lighthearted dancers to follow the composer’s and choreographer’s comic lead; fortunately, Hubbard Street has them in abundance. Moreover, dancers like Christine Carrillo Simpson, Shan Bai, Ron De Jesus, Laura Haney Gomez, and David Gomez seem capable of shifting gears instantly and turning all their comic energy into serious, lyrical dancing.

It’s a wonder. A wonder that calls to mind the Hubbard Street dancers, now gone, who gave their vitality to some of the older works being performed during the company’s Spring Festival of Dance engagement: Alberto Arias in the wrestling section of Read My Hips, Kitty Skillman-Hilsabeck as the ringleader in Lou Conte’s The 40s, Claire Bataille as the final golden, mellow figure in Twyla Tharp’s The Golden Section, Sandi Cooksey as the head-tossing ingenue of “Forget Domani” in Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs. They’re gone but not forgotten, as new dances supplement the old and new dancers with their own personalities replace the ones who’ve left. Isn’t that what anniversaries are for, looking back? Fortunately Hubbard Street seems to have a long life before it as well.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Lois Greenfield.