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A Christmas dance at the Art Institute

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago presents an on-site response to an 18th-century Neapolitan creche.

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This season Hubbard Street Dance Chicago goes beyond The Nutcracker with an on-site response to an 18th-century Neapolitan creche on display at the Art Institute. Representing the Nativity, creches typically feature Jesus surrounded by his parents in a stable in Bethlehem. But this one is a continent apart, literally.

The holy family has been relocated to a rocky hillock in Naples, where angels hover above them. There's a more raucous scene at ground level, where taverngoers overflow into the street and shepherds bring livestock down the boulevard. By and large, the citizens are oblivious to the fanfare overhead.

There's grittiness, too. Compare Mary presenting Jesus on her knee, doted on by cherubs, to a peasant woman offering a breast to her babe as an old farmer leers on. The baroque style itself resists refinement—the very name comes from a Romance word for an irregularly shaped pearl. That roughness, plus the large cast of characters, poses a special challenge for this show's five choreographers, whose instincts are to shy from the literal. Here they contribute poses, gestures, and phrases that reflect the manner in which many artisans, working independently, created the individual components of this creche. And they do it fast. Preparation for this kind of residency work happens in a kind of pressure cooker, the various participants coming together for a relatively short time and producing, at the end, a technically impeccable museum event.

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