September 28, 2018
by Chris Jones
Hubbard Street’s Season 41 Fall Series asks a lot of its audience: The new environmentalist collaboration between the choreographers Emma Portner, Lil Buck and Jon Boogz runs close to 90 minutes without a break, a relative rarity in the world of contemporary dance.
Alas, there is no discreet exit from the Harris Theater, and thus the price paid by that decision Thursday night was a stream of people heading variously and loudly for the exit, all the way up to the top of the theater. They were missing a very interesting collage of diverse talents, given that the original music here was composed by Devonté Hynes (aka Blood Orange) and performed live by Chicago’s Third Coast Percussion.
I suspect the artists, most of whom are new to Hubbard Street, wanted to encourage their viewers to make sustained narrative connections about their stated theme of sustainability (and our lack of attention thereto). An inspiration, the artists have said, was Paul Stamets’ book “Mycelium Running,” the thesis of which involves us growing more mushrooms so as to harness the rejuvenating benefits of the fungus parts known as mycelium, weapons in the environmental battle against deforestation, toxic waste and other human-caused debasements of our precious Earth.
That’s not easy to translate into physical movement, but these three young artists certainly manage to intensely express the strange intersectional role played by the human body — at once part of the natural landscape but also the source of its corruption. That compelling ambivalence resonates throughout the piece.
There is text: original poetry performed by Robin Sanders in the Boogz and Lil Buck piece called “There Was Nothing” and, in Portner’s piece, Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms” (in an interesting irony, it is noted that the sponsor of the piece is Conagra Brands Foundation). But at least as it reached my ear, the text is indistinct and it was hard to know whether it was intended to interplay with the movement on an equal level or function more as stylized wallpaper. That’s a choice needing to be made.
Similarly, there’s more work yet to do on how to order the space. The Third Coast maestros take up a lot of room, sometimes crunching the incomparable Hubbard Street dancers around their instruments. How the former is meant to interact with the latter is not yet clear — the presence of live musicians always is a gift, but so forceful a visual presence necessitates decisions on deeper, in-the-moment matters.
To encapsulate all of that: The program is intellectually rigorous and largely meets the challenge of connecting dancer to dust, the stuff to which we all will return. But it still needs to find how to breathe.