Kevin J. Shannon bearing Jesse Bechard in One Flat Thing, Reproduced; upstage from left are Florian Lochner, Alice Klock, David Schultz, Emilie Leriche, and Ana Lopez Credit: Todd Rosenberg

Last year Hubbard Street Dance Chicago won kudos and a bunch of new fans with The Art of Falling, a collaboration with Second City. I liked the show, though I found it a bit corny, and thought the dancers more than held their own. But Hubbard Street’s fall series, “An Evening of Work by William Forsythe,” has me raving as much now as the critics were then.

Melody Datz Hansen, a critic at alt-weekly The Stranger, called a March showcase of Forsythe’s work by the Pacific Northwest Ballet “controversial” and “mind-blowing,” saying, “Even if you never, ever go to the ballet, you should see this.” I’m inclined to say the same of this concert, though as Hansen acknowledges, Forsythe’s choreography is far enough outside of some people’s conceptions of dance that fans of traditional ballet have been known to walk out of performances. At Thursday’s opening at the Harris, though, I and seemingly most of the audience were gripped from the silent beginning. 

The program of three pieces (with two intermissions) starts with N.N.N.N., the 2002 quartet that Hubbard Street artistic director Glenn Edgerton says sparked his interest in mounting Forsythe’s work. It also might exemplify one of the elements irking traditionalists, as the “score” consists almost entirely of the dancers’ amplified breathing. Forsythe’s frequent collaborator, composer Thom Willems, provides some electronics, but they’re so subtle you could have fooled me. Turns out that’s intentional; as staging artist Cyril Baldy, one of the original dancers, told Tribune critic Laura Molzahn, “you’re not even supposed to hear” the underlying sound design.

Instead, it’s the dancers who are treated as instruments, “their arms, heads, bodies and legs . . . singular voices, each tuned and in counterpoint to the other,” in the words of the program notes. Hubbard Street is the first U.S. company to perform the work, and given its requirements, it’s no wonder. As Forsythe explained to Chicago Tonight, “You have to find a company that’s willing to take the time because it’s insanely complicated. It’s like learning a string quartet by heart and playing an instrument you’ve never played before.”

Kevin J. Shannon, Emilie Leriche, Jeffery Duffy, and Jacqueline Burnett in N.N.N.N.Credit: Todd Rosenberg

So in addition to Baldy, Hubbard Street brought in another of N.N.N.N.‘s original dancers, Amancio Gonzalez; Ayman Aaron Harper, a longtime Forsythe dancer who’s also a founding member of Hubbard Street 2; still another former Hubbard Street dancer, Mario Zambrano; and the 65-year-old Forsythe himself.

The intensive hands-on approach is all the more necessary because the works aren’t choreographed to music or rhythmic cues so much as dependent on the dancers themselves. Eat your heart out, Second City—these performers are improvisers too. As Harper explains in a program Q&A: 

“We started by workshopping some of the ideas in these pieces with the dancers, giving them improvisational tasks, just to get a sense of who these characters we had in the room were, which qualities they were bringing to the table, so to speak, which ideas they were connecting to, how they had situated themselves in their bodies, and how they were responding to the work.”

Kevin J. Shannon, Jeffery Duffy, Emilie Leriche, and Jacqueline Burnett in N.N.N.N.Credit: Todd Rosenberg

N.N.N.N. opens with Kevin J. Shannon (who given his name and quizzical expression could at first almost be taken for a Second City member) performing simple motions—loosely swinging his arm back and forth, placing a seemingly exploratory hand on his head. He’s joined by some of Hubbard Street’s latest standouts: gamin Emilie Leriche, powerhouse Jeffery Duffy, and intense, fluid Jacqueline Burnett. The conventional boy-girl, boy-girl pairing might lead you to take the dance’s push-and-pull group dynamics to represent attraction/repulsion, togetherness/rivalry. But then you realize it’s not really that. Instead, the four seem to be breaking down human interaction into its most basic elements, and if you don’t know exactly what’s going on, well, you don’t need to, and in fact aren’t supposed to—there’s no fixed narrative or answer to the question what it’s “really about.” All the same, the work is compelling enough that, even if you’re like me, a person who’s not long interested in sheer movement, however extraordinary, you’re drawn into it as you might be by an abstract painting or a particularly engaging piece of improvised music. 

David Schultz in QuintettCredit: Todd Rosenberg

The second work, Quintett (1993), was first mounted by Hubbard Street in 2012 with the help of original dancer Thomas McManus, who returned to assist with this restaging. It incorporates a few striking props—what looked to me like a cannon* downstage right, and a low mirror upstage left—and later in the piece, a projected background. But it’s similarly minimalist, a progression of solos, duets, and trios that are abstract despite the symbolic weight of the props. The score, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” is a haunting, evocative 1971 composition by Gavin Bryars, built on a loop of an unknown homeless man plaintively singing (you can listen to it here). Reviewing Hubbard Street’s initial staging for the Reader, Molzahn wrote:

An enterprise this unusual, intricate, and intensely athletic requires painstaking preparation. At an early rehearsal, you could see the balance and control required of the dancers as they moved through perilous angles and extreme shifts of weight. Repetiteur Thomas McManus looked like a carpenter, calibrating and recalibrating two duets—measuring limbs, adjusting angles, ensuring that all the parts joined up right.

Three years later, it sure seems like they have. Says Edgerton in his note to the audience, “I am deeply moved  and proud of our dancers, seeing how they have grown since we first presented [it] three years ago.”

Even more fiendishly difficult than Quintett is the show’s closer, One Flat Thing, Reproduced, which introduces a phalanx of stark metal tables the dancers push in a dynamic rush to the front of the stage, then leap upon, balance against, lie on, and hurl themselves at, among other phenomenally athletic and gymnastic moves. 

Michael Gross, above, and Jeffery DuffyCredit: Todd Rosenberg

The score, again by Thom Willems, is an industrial track that sets an appropriately menacing tone. For the tables are obstacles, icebergs, even (the work is inspired by antarctic explorer Robert Scott). They’re perilous too. Original dancer Harper told the Trib that “yesterday, four people banged themselves on those tables. And I don’t just mean little bruises—I mean, like, do a battement with all the force we’re trying to pull out of them, then hitting their bones. There is this element of danger.” And once again, the dancers are on their own, with no musical cues to keep everyone together, just each other.

Watching, I took the “icebergs” as any number of things. Sometimes they seemed like an assembly line belt, sometimes pallets bearing victims, other times autopsy tables, other times rafts, still others like table tables—there are parts where the dancers treat them as Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly might walls or furniture, bounding off of them, swinging under them, the chorus executing its own sharp moves in the background.

There wasn’t a full ovation that night, and on the way out I overheard an elderly woman express disappointment in the show. My companion, on the other hand, remarked that right now Hubbard Street reminds him of Steppenwolf in its early days. In other words, killer.  

A second cast still featuring principals including Jacqueline Burnett, Jesse Bechard, and Ana Lopez performed the program Friday and will again at the Sunday matinee; the opening cast performs again tonight.

* Hubbard Street publicist Zachary Whittenburg explains that the “cannon” is actually “a vintage opera projector which creates the cloud design at the end of the piece. It runs throughout the duration of Quintett, projecting clouds, but is masked shut until the dancers remove the cap at the end of the barrel, revealing the projection.”

Hubbard Street Dance Fall Series, “An Evening of Work by William Forsythe,” Sat 10/17, 8 PM; Sun 10/18, 3 PM, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph,, $42.50-$99.