Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

at the Shubert Theatre, through May 12

By Laura Molzahn

There are a couple of weak links that can be devastating to dance companies no matter how strong the rest of the chain: weak dancers and weak dances. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago has been strong on both counts for several years, given artistic director Lou Conte’s high standards, but the company has outdone itself this time. Despite major and minor injuries and many substitutions for scheduled performers, the troupe looks great. And its Spring Festival of Dance lineup has more to offer than ever: it’s full of old favorites like Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs, Daniel Ezralow’s Read My Hips, and Conte’s The 40s but also includes several top-notch new and newer works. Only one bomb. A surprise bomb.

Twyla Tharp, always the iconoclast, has done something truly shocking this time: she’s made a mediocre dance. Mediocre verging on bad. The official premiere of I Remember Clifford revealed that, despite a few cuts since a “sneak preview” last August, it remains a poorly thought out narrative chockablock with boring dancing. I hope Twyla gave Hubbard Street her fire-sale rate on this one.

Comparison with Fait Accompli, the 1983 Tharp work HSDC recently revived and showed on the same program with Clifford, only makes the dance she created especially for Hubbard Street look worse. Fait Accompli is somewhat limited by David Van Tieghem’s commissioned rock score, but at least it conveys the joie de danse so conspicuously absent from Clifford. With its smoky black background, 16 dancers, and skimpy unitards, Fait Accompli has an instant presence and sex appeal. More than that, it has interesting choreography. This is the kind of work that won Tharp her international reputation–the kind of detail and invention that keeps us hooked and begging for more. The space-eating runs backward, the little Pierrot jumps out onto flexed feet, the floppy boxer’s tippy-toe dances, the insouciant slides (chin on palm) into the splits–these are classic Tharp. Then there are the things you’ve never seen from her before, like the mechanical run in a small circle, arms and head stiff, body leaning in, like a windup toy programmed to one orbit.

Though the score contains hints of some disaster–sirens, Klaxons, voices on the radio speaking ominously of “exploratory surgery” and “more doctors”–the dancers reveal a pure pleasure in their power and expertise that belies the omens of vulnerability. One section for the piece’s eight men makes them seem heroic rescuers, running in slow motion toward us through the fog, then stopping one by one to stand tall, legs wide, in superhero poses. (I knew all the testosterone and aggression were good for something.) Tharp positively wallows in the beefcake, choreographing waves of motion as one man after another strikes a superstar pose or bounds in place. She also plays with formal devices, setting up floor patterns, canons, inversions. By the end all 16 dancers are onstage, divided into two contingents that first rush together like battling tidal waves, then leap into the wings like the Red Sea parting. When almost all have made it off there’s a blast of light and sound, and the ones remaining fall. Lights down: end. This dance made me grieve for all the human ingenuity and power wiped out in a second, for the joy and pleasure in movement lost.

I find very little of that joy in I Remember Clifford. There are basically two kinds of dancing in this 34-minute, six-section piece: the cool, slouchy club dancing of the first part and the smooth, bland, everything’s-coming-up-roses variety at the end. The story revolves around a young man (Ron De Jesus) who’s a conspicuous outsider, who fails miserably at establishing a connection with two women (at least), who laments his fate, then is brought into the fold by a charismatic “preacher” (Mario Alberto Zambrano) and finally reconciled with everyone who done him wrong. End of rancor, end of story. It’s all pretty juvenile, pretty unmotivated.

Who would have cared if the choreography had been good? But there’s none of the formal interest that’s so strong in Fait Accompli. Almost no squiggles or other inventive moves. A good bit of Clifford is just body language. Most of the rest is brand X balletic modern dance. I thought I was going to scream at all the cliches: the spinning turns, the floating arms (especially because Tharp is usually so inventive with arms), the snapped fingers to show coolness. Some things are fun: a big, funky twist for the men, legs wide; De Jesus’s sad-sack walk against the wind in the section “Big Rol,” head pushing forward, arms hanging down, and the way Laura Elena Haney keeps her eyes glued on him even as four virile guys manipulate her through an airborne Chinese puzzle; the line dance De Jesus joins in the first section, “The Sidewinder,” only to have the line turn and advance on him.

De Jesus’s dancing is interesting, pointedly looser and weirder than the dancing of the in crowd, before he’s brought into the fold: he has character, even if it is of a comic-pathetic sort. But some of the excitement of his solo in “Lonely Woman” may derive not from the choreography but from the music, from Ornette Coleman’s hoarse, yearning saxophone. For the score Tharp has chosen jazz from the late 50s and early 60s–the days of her own adolescence–that often expresses the loneliness and genius of those who by choice or fate are outsiders. But the narrative doesn’t celebrate differentness–quite the opposite. And in their way these jazz classics introduce another disappointment: Tharp, who can easily make mediocre music seem better (as in Fait Accompli), fails entirely to match the brilliance of these tunes. Especially the last one, “I Remember Clifford.” The more I enjoyed the twists and turns of Benny Golson’s composition and Lee Morgan’s playing, the more I regretted the faceless, featureless choreography.

That’s the bad news. The good news is Kevin O’Day, whose premiere for the company–a sleazy romp called Hellblondegroove–marks a new path for him and for Hubbard Street. O’Day, a young choreographer with great credentials who’s had only a few dances produced, has been struggling for the last few years to crawl out from under Tharp’s shadow (he danced with her for eight years before striking off on his own with the White Oak Dance Project). Where O’Day’s Quartet for IV (And Sometimes One, Two or Three…), which Hubbard Street has been performing for a year now, shows Tharp’s influence in various quirky gestures (rocking hips, floating shoulders, a tough-guy thumbing of the nose), Hellblondegroove reveals a much deeper and more positive legacy: the attention Tharp (normally) pays to form, to floor patterns, repetition, variation.

And, ironically, it’s in the context of a barroom. But don’t expect the usual dance-hall dance–this one is at once more abstract and more true to life. No bar stools or jukeboxes here, just David A. Finn’s lurid lighting (hanging bare red bulbs) and John King’s live solo music–primarily electric guitar–performed on a spotlit balcony. King’s playing is enough to make you think Jimi Hendrix has come back from the dead, echoing everything from the blues to the sound of cloth being ripped to shreds; he even intones a few lines from “Wild Thing” (“I think you move me / But I want to know for shore”). The dancing is rough-tough show-off stuff–closer to traditional jazz dance than I’ve seen from Hubbard Street in a long time. And it’s a nice change to see snake hips, high kicks, layouts, struts, little choo-choo trains with chugging feet. But that ain’t all they do in this dance guaranteed to bring out the barfly in all of us. This quartet for four men and four women features character solos and duets; Ron De Jesus’s solo, with four women as a siren chorus, is particularly juicy, slow and spacey and spazzy–a much more nuanced, affectionate portrait of a drunk than Tharp’s brief, sad sketch in Clifford.

Hellblondegroove isn’t a great dance, but it’s a dance remarkable for its unlikely combination of formalism, sketches of character and situation, and driving pop-cult dancing and music. It joins Quartet for IV, Fait Accompli, and Mauricio Wainrot’s Perpetuum Mobile (revived this year after its premiere in 1994, and a better dance than I gave it credit for then despite its occasional static or fussy moments) to form a core repertoire of stylish, entertaining works of artistic integrity and lasting interest.

None of them would work, however, without Hubbard Street’s expert dancing. It’s a sign of the troupe’s professionalism that despite last-minute injuries the ensemble held together, thanks to the dancers who stepped in: the supple Laura Elena Haney for Krista Swenson and the dynamic Mario Alberto Zambrano for David Gomez in key roles in Clifford, apprentice Jason Ohlberg for Zambrano in Perpetuum Mobile, and an entirely different cast for Quartet for IV than the one scheduled. In that cast Jennita Russo and Patrick Mullaney were particularly expressive and quick, while Joseph Mooradian (who performed in Quartet for IV last year) was a wonderment, loose and athletic and manly in a solo that brought Gene Kelly and “Singin’ in the Rain” breathtakingly to mind, right down to the doff of an invisible hat.

Fait Accompli is a much more enjoyable piece than it was last August in large part because it’s better danced–with more enjoyment and relaxation. The standout dancer among these 16 was Sandi J. Cooksey, who now has the easy pleasure and odd articulations of Tharp’s choreography in her bones. To do what these dancers have done is a true accomplishment but a fleeting one: Cooksey retires after these appearances. In the fluid, hazardous world of dance, with its injuries, illnesses, early retirements, and betrayals of various kinds, dancegoers have got to go when the going’s good. It’s good. So go.