January 11, 2019
by Laura Bleiberg
From its humble beginnings in the mid-1970s, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago has been the little company that could, a jazz troupe launched and molded by former Broadway hoofer Lou Conte.
Hubbard Street is still a small group (16 exceptional women and men), but it has become a mighty beacon of resplendent dancing, proved by the company’s show Thursday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
Conte allowed Hubbard Street to outgrow its stylistic origins and organically find its own soul, becoming a home for Twyla Tharp’s early masterworks. Under Conte’s successor, Jim Vincent, and current leader Glenn Edgerton, the group has demonstrated a penchant for humongous physicality and established a repertory that’s edgy but still pleasing to audiences.
Even pieces that fail to land their punch still exhibit an infectious brio. This was the case with the program’s first half, consisting of excerpts from a full-evening commission from 2018. As presented here, the triptych began with a musical interlude by Third Coast Percussion and seamlessly segued into dances from pop-culture choreographers Emma Portner and Teddy Forance. The standouts, though, were composer Devonté Hynes’ lush score and Third Coast musicians Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore, who were onstage making otherworldly sounds from a multitude of idiophones, drums and other devices.
Portner and Forance’s pieces loosely cross-pollinate an environmentalist theme with Sylvia Plath’s female empowerment poem “Mushrooms.” But you wouldn’t have known that from the excerpts presented — except for a glimpse of a man with a plastic bag over his head. Portner, the choreographer behind and performer in Justin Bieber’s “Life Is Worth Living” video, here creates vignettes that are just beyond deciphering.
Portner crafted quick, pulsing movements, contrasted with frozen tableaux of the performers playing peek-a-boo behind two hanging banners. There were moments of cooperation mixed with power struggles among seven dancers identically clad in brown tunics and skirts. Soloist Rena Butler, in speckled top and shorts, remained apart, undulating with exquisite control.
After a costume change, the dancers returned for Forance’s more brief portion, focused on unison motion of driving urgency. Throughout, though, it was Hynes’ score of insistent ringing and drumming that stirred the senses.
The second half of the evening opened with “Ignore,” a striking selection from Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. It slowly built power from the repetition of motion and narration. As we heard Charles Bukowski’s raw poem “making it” over and over, a new line added each time, a terrific female quintet stamped idiosyncratic gestures into the viewer’s mind. It hit like a slow drip, an exhilarating torture (and still memorable from the solo variation that Bodytraffic performed at the Wallis last year).
Hubbard resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Pacopepepluto” is the other extreme, a good-hearted pleasure trip. Imagine Dean Martin crooning “That’s Amore” while a buff guy — Michael Gross — scampers about in just his skivvies and you’ve got the idea. The two other equally buff and exposed guys, Craig Black Jr. and Florian Lochner, frolicked solo to other golden oldies, completing this witty and sharply carved trio.
The best was saved for last: Choreographer Crystal Pite’s “Solo Echo,” created to two Brahms cello and piano sonatas. We see too few of this brilliant Canadian dance maker’s pieces. She is masterful at crafting dance that crosses the theater divide to reverberate in the viewer’s body. In “Solo Echo,” she turned Mark Strand’s poem “Lines for Winter” into powerful statements of love and death.
Lighting designer Tom Visser set the scene with a simulated snowfall on the backdrop. The seven dancers flowed through Pite’s lyrical passages, advancing and receding like waves. For the second half, they danced connected, starting phrases on successive musical notes and becoming a real-life echo. The subtly shifting illumination, paired with this rolling motion caused a wondrous vertigo. Amazing.
Hmmm. Three poems were fodder for this program — must be a trend.