Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
May 13, 2015 (Program B)
Falling Angels, PACOPEPEPLUTO, The Impossible, Gnawa
May 16M, 2015 (Program A)
Second to Last(excerpt), A Picture of You Falling, Cloudless,
Waxing Moon, I Am Mister B
-- by Jerry Hochman
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is one of this country’s foremost contemporary dance companies, despite its location in Second City.
No, I wasn’t being serious. But perhaps because the company has its home in Chicago, it’s been able to nurture contemporary dance on a large scale, for thirty seven years, without the pressure of the New York critical microscope. Regardless, it has an exciting and reasonably eclectic repertoire, a bevy of outstanding dancers, and a Resident Choreographer with distinctive ability and depth -- and it has returned to the Joyce Theater with two program alternating in a two-week run.
I attended both programs and found some of the dances to be more interesting or compelling than others, but with one or two exceptions, they all were intriguing.
The first program began with an excerpt from Second to Last, choreographed by Hubbard Street’s Resident Choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. The full ballet was choreographed on Ballet Arizona, and premiered in 2013.
Cerrudo writes that the entire dance was conceived as a study, to explore ‘choreographic possibilities within the duet form,” and that it wasn’t his intention to explore relationships. It was movement research, rather than trying to look for that specific feeling.”
I can’t attest to whether Cerrudo’s stated intention was clear in the entire piece, but based on this excerpt alone, he’s being disingenuous. With rare exception, anytime a man and woman dance a duet in which their bodies intertwine, there’s some emotional content either expressed or implied, even without any obvious ‘acting’. This excerpt is not one of the exceptions. The choreography may have been intended as a study, but the emotional connection between the dancers that the choreography creates is an essential component, and cannot be dismissed as some unintended consequence.
The excerpt presented consists of five duets to music by Arvo Part. The music is devotional, though not necessarily worshipful, and lovely to listen to. The duets match the music, and are primarily gentle and lyrical. Hubbard Street acquired this excerpt for use as part of a program called “The Art of Falling” – but what this excerpt has to do with ‘falling’ is unclear, since the five couples displayed little of it, unless ‘falling’ refers to an emotional state – which is exactly what Cerrudo says he was not trying to explore.
Crystal Pite’s A Picture of You Falling premiered in 2008 in two different versions – one a solo, the other a duet. At Saturday afternoon's performance, it was performed as a solo, danced by Jesse Bechard. The choreography is staccato and unnatural – as if the dancer is imprisoned in a confined space, like an automobile, and is repeatedly buffeted when the car is hit by other vehicles from different angles, and for five or ten minutes he bounces around within his car’s parameters with limbs flying in multiple directions at once. He takes a licking and then goes off to face the world.
Like the Second to Last excerpt, what A Picture of You Falling displays appears contrary to what the choreographer appears to have intended (“…storylines that move across cultures and generations….the body’s role as their illustrator…the ways in which the body can convey profound meaning through the simplest of gestures, and how distortion, iteration and analysis of familiar human action provide opportunities to recognize and re-frame ourselves in one another.” There’s nothing of that in what I saw (perhaps the note was quoted out of context) – except there was considerable body distortion.
What A Picture of You Falling conveys is a dancer being buffeted by forces – whether these forces originate from within or without (e.g., by his own fears, dreams, successes, failures; or by the slings and arrows of life that he must learn to overcome) doesn’t matter. Pite’s skill in choreographing this assault makes seeing it worthwhile. And it’s a fascinating vehicle, so to speak, for Bechard’s virtuosity – that he didn’t crack a vertebra, throw out a shoulder, or suffer from self-induced whiplash from all those forces he was being hit with is miraculous.
Cloudless, a duet for two women, was beautifully danced by Jessica Tong and Alice Klock, and sensitively choreographed by Cerrudo, to an evocative score by Nils Frahm. It’s an emotional duet, without being saccharine, and after the previous piece, was a welcome relief for the eyes and ears.
The two highlights of Program A were Waxing Moon and I Am Mister B, two pieces that couldn’t be more different.
Waxing Moon is an interesting piece of work, both choreographically and thematically. Like A Picture of You Falling, it deals with the protagonist’s engagement with forces. But the choreography, by Robyn Mineko Williams (whose work I have not previously seen) is simpler, and consequently (to me), more powerful. And as was the case with all these pieces, was performed with an abundance of skill and stoic emotionalism (by that I mean there were no histrionics, but you could feel the emotion surging through the dancers’ pores, and feel the temperature rise in the theater). Williams describes Waxing Moon as contemplating “the process of becoming.” That it does, but I saw more in it than that.
Michael Gross dances the piece’s protagonist, who sits on a chair and contemplates. Halfway across the stage, he sees a male dancer, Johnny McMillan (shirtless, as I recall). While Gross largely thinks and watches, McMillan is visually powerful: he looks feral. To me, McMillan is either the man Gross wants to be (a would-be alter-ego of sorts), or the type of man Gross has to conquer, at least in his mind.
Onto the stage comes a woman, Emilie Leriche, and her presence both intensifies and complicates things (so what else is new….). She appears to be initially attracted to McMillan’s character, and watching the process seems to inflame Gross’s character. Eventually, Gross grows in self-confidence (‘waxes’), McMillan disappears, and Leriche gravitates toward Gross (of course, McMillan’s presence may have only been a figment of Gross’s imagination – and perhaps Leriche’s character was as well).
All three dancers did a superb job, but a particular nod must go to Leriche, a stunning, dramatic-looking dancer who was part femme-fatale, and part electrified ice-cube.
I Am Mister B, which Hubbard Street premiered two months ago, is a curious piece that I initially disliked intensely. Choreographed by Gustavo Ramirez Sansano (whose work I have also not previously seen) to Tchaikovsky’s ‘Theme and Variations’ from his Suite No. 3, it’s a large-scale piece (6 women, 6 men) that appears to be intended as some sort of salute to George Balanchine, who of course created the ballet “Theme and Variations.” The line between homage and parody is thin, and since Theme and Variations is one of my favorite Balanchine ballets, Sansano was choreographing on thin ice with me to begin with. And when he began his piece with having a dancer assume the role of Balanchine, and talk to the audience in a way that caters to misconceptions about his choreography as a whole and diminishes its sgnificance, I wanted to cringe.
But eventually, as it became clear that I Am Mister B is not a choreographic commentary on Balanchine’s piece, but rather a contemporary dance that stands on its own (and moves, impossible as it seems, faster than New York City Ballet dances Balanchine’s version), it grew on me. The movement is non-stop, and although it doesn’t look particularly creative (other than showing Sansano’s ability to move small armies of dancers across the stage quickly and uniformly), the energy level is intense. And it’s not a contemporary rehash of Balanchine – indeed, with one or two exceptions ,Sansano appears to have gone out of his way not to use choreographic themes that look similar to the ballet. It’s not a great contemporary piece (Sansano is not, at least by this example, a contemporary dance Mr. B), but it works. The portions of the piece that I particularly liked were the ones that most reflected Sansano’s incorporation of the regality inherent in Tchaikovsky’s score: toward the end, he sequentially introduced three individual dancers by opening a curtain and having one appear, then another and another dancer…, and then he repeating the same process later, except with two dancers each time (the only example I saw of a ‘theme and variation’ development). And having the dancer who portrays Mr. B stepping up for a bow as the music concludes is a nice touch. Every dancer in the piece performed at an extraordinary level of intensity, but the one I noticed most and who was particularly impressive was Ana Lopez.
And I appreciated the ‘in-joke’ that dominated the piece, even though it was misplaced. The costumes (designed by Branimira Ivanova) have all the dancers wearing tuxedo-like jackets, pants, and a ‘formal-type’ shirt. The jacket is muted dark blue, the pants are black, the shirts are white. Early on, the dancers jettison the jackets, and dance most of the rest of the piece in shirt and pants. Black and White. So this is a Sansano Black & White dance of sorts, intended as a nod to Balanchine’s series of groundbreaking ballets – even though “Theme and Variations” is not one of Balanchine’s Black & White ballets.
Like Program A, Program B was somewhat uneven, but performed at a very high level. It began with a piece created by Jiri Kylian in 1989: Falling Angels. It’s a lovely, lyrical piece for eight women who are on stage most of the time, and as the piece progresses the women breaks into subgroups of varying number. Like the accompanying score (by Steve Reich) however, the choreography for the women, beautiful as it often looks, is not sufficiently different enough from one subgroup to another (except for the size of the grouping) to make the piece particularly memorable. At the time of its creation, it may have appeared significant, but it no longer does.
Cerrudo’s PACOPEPEPLUTO followed. Choreographed for Hubbard Street in 2011, it presents three men dancing solo to three popular songs from the 1950s and 60s, sung, solo, by Dean Martin: In the Chapel in the Moonlight, Memories Are Made of This, and That’s Amore. But cute and comfortable to watch as it is (Martin’s vocals are the vocal equivalent of being ‘kissed’ – ok, slobbered over – by your favorite pooch), and despite excellent performances, the choreography doesn't enhance the songs. The first solo, danced by McMillan, was ok, but more athletic than seemed appropriate – unless the angular formations were supposed to inspire memories of church architecture. Things improved with the more slinky second solo, danced by David Schultz. The finest of the three was the last, performed by Jonathan Fredrickson, which choreographically captured the joy of That’s Amore. [I don’t know what “PACOPEPEPLUTO” means, if it means anything, but perhaps it’s a conjunction of three words: paco, pepe, and pluto – though if it is, the significance of that escapes me.]
Cerrudo provided a much more interesting piece with The Impossible, which premiered a year ago. This is a complex piece, that was put together with such obvious care, and danced with such obvious dedication, that the fact that I couldn’t quite determine what was happening I chalked up to my own deficiency. But what is clear is that the memories and experiences of the lead characters are pealed apart and presented like onion layers. Smashed onions.
Choreographed to music by many different artists, the piece, on the surface, probes the lives of an elderly couple. Time and events are fractured, so they’re not completely clear, and dancers’ roles may represent more than one person. A stooped, elderly woman approaches a building wall (the wall to her home, it appears), and encounters a young man (McMillan), who looks ominous. The old woman promptly socks him in the gut and walks into her house. In the subsequent scene, the old woman is in her home, is greeted by an equally stoop-shouldered old man (apparently her husband), and the choreography outlines their loving, supportive (physical and well as emotional) relationship. The couple is brilliantly played by Lopez and Fredrickson. And then two additional couples enter the room: portrayed by Tong and Andrew Murdock. They’re younger, and they take positions that mirror those of Lopez and Fredrickson. Eventually, we see that Tong and Murdock are younger incarnations of Lopez and Fredricson – perhaps the older couples’ remembrances of themselves when they were younger.
It’s a remarkably sweet scene, but there’s much more going on here that the dance subsequently reveals, and explores. Tong (who was particularly extraordinary in this role) and Murdock had a violent encounter with McMillan (or a McMillan ‘type’) and a gang of his friends years before, which has shaped the old couple’s relationship – and which accounts for the unexpected blow to McMillan when the piece began.
The Impossible isn’t a great piece of choreographic invention, but it’s a very fine and distinctive piece of work, and one that lingers in the memory.
The program concluded with Gnawa, created by Nacho Duato for Hubbard Street in 2005. It’s fascinating, as much for its music (Middle Eastern/North African) by Hassan Hakmoun and Adam Rudoph, as its choreography. The music seems to come from another dimension, another world, as if it’s being transmitted from distant clouds, and the ambiance is quietly (as opposed to feverishly) mystical. The dancing by the sixteen person ensemble (which included Cerrudo, who credits Duato with being a strong influence), led by Kellie Epperheimer and Jason Hortin, was superb. And seeing Epperheimer raised aloft as the piece ends, toward those clouds, and toward some measure of heavenly peace (evocative, in a way, of the closing moments of Balanchine's Serenade), is glorious.
Under the leadership of Artistic Director Glenn Edgerton, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is a spectacular group of contemporary dancers with a purpose to present a vibrant repertory by living artists. Its reputation preceded it here, and based on these programs, which were my introduction to the company, that reputation is well-earned. Performances at the Joyce will continue until May 24.