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at Ravinia

August 28 and 29

Jazz choreographer Bob Fosse's work demands superb ballet technique, physical strength, and a dash of theatrical flair--all qualities that have earned the Hubbard Street Dance Company a loyal following. And Fosse's hard-driving style has profoundly influenced Hubbard Street founder and artistic director Lou Conte. So it seems natural for the company to attempt Fosse's work. And despite minor flaws in their performance of his Percussion Four, first performed as a solo in 1978 in the Broadway show Dancin', it was gratifying to see this aspect of the American performing-arts heritage onstage at Ravinia.

Other aspects of that heritage were represented by other works on the opening-night program last week--works by such modern choreographers as Twyla Tharp and Daniel Ezralow, and by the more classically oriented Margo Sappington and John McFall. Given the range of choreographic styles, Hubbard Street's versatility cannot fail to impress.

The company premiere of Percussion Four was the highlight of Hubbard Street's engagement, but the company has yet to make the piece its own. Fosse's widow--the legendary Gwen Verdon--set the work on the company in January. Although it was danced with verve by Alberto J. Arias, Josef Patrick, and newcomer Michael McGowan, the piece is so short--less than three minutes in toto--that it leaves the viewer stimulated but ultimately unsatisfied. Removed from the context of an all-dance Broadway show, it leaves us hungry for more.

Percussion Four begins with the three men in a triangle, McGowan upstage; a flurry of drums and intermittent whistles punctuate bold leaps and sharp multiple turns. Signature Fosse moves--sensual pelvic rolls, shimmies, and daredevil, knees-be-damned slides across the floor--match the urgency of Gordon Lowry Harrell's music. Re-creating the original lighting and costumes--black tights with unbuttoned black shirts--enhances the feeling of period authenticity. The piece closes abruptly when Patrick, throwing his arms open in a palms-up gesture, declares "That's it, folks!"

The effect is similar to a sudden release of air from a balloon. And of the three dancers, only Arias and Patrick project the trademark Fosse showmanship and dynamic energy. This Percussion Four is a diamond in the rough--a little polishing will realize its full brilliance, though it will still be a small stone. McGowan, an apprentice, is in his first year with the company, and he lacks the physical authority of Arias and Patrick. But it's likely that in time he'll grow into this piece--and then, watch out.

The gentle lyricism of Sappington's And Now This suits the company to a T. This abstract ballet, an ensemble piece with a mellifluous Leonard Bernstein score, plays to the dancers' technical strengths. In the first section, Claire Bataille and Linda-Denise Evans articulate every nuance with an easy grace. Movement varies from solo dancing to partnering, combining sharp turns and precise placement with smooth balances. The next section begins with two couples and one solo dancer. Bataille and Evans dip from arabesque into tombe, and the men (Patrick and Geoff Myers) lift them into splits that are low but scissor-sharp. Classic pirouettes are interspersed with Tharpian shoulder and hip isolations. The finale might be dubbed "West Side Story meets Le Jazz Hot," as romantic innocence gives way to smoldering sensuality. Frank Chaves and Ron De Jesus turn up the heat with sultry hip rolls and surprise lifts. Melting into a sitting position on the floor, the dancers arch back toward their supporting arms for a photogenic close.

The giddy footwork in Twyla Tharp's Baker's Dozen poses different challenges. Set to jazz piano compositions by Willie "The Lion" Smith, this is a feast of nonstop movement and coolly intricate patterns. Arms draw concentric circles in the air; solo dancers twirl incessantly. Tharp's comedic flourishes belie the complexity of the choreography. When Christine Carrillo extends her leg in developpe, partner Patrick fondles it. Bataille and De Jesus glide through breathtaking turns, interrupted when he catches her in a mock fall. Tharp's abrupt shifts from manic to lyrical movement illuminate the dancers' technical virtuosity. Teasing false starts and aborted entrances from the wings make the viewer wonder what he's missing offstage.

John McFall's Tiempo, a departure from the ensemble pieces that dominated the program, was the biggest disappointment. His manipulation of movement is not enough to sustain interest--even the Stravinsky score fails to rescue this dance from the doldrums. In a series of solos, the three primary dancers (Adrienne Parker, Carrillo, and Amy Nicole Heggins) execute identical movements at different tempi and in different ways: slow, fast, backward. Arms assume mechanical, angular shapes, swinging from the elbow like wayward traffic signals. The dancers lunge with both arms extended, hands opening and clasping shut as if making shadow puppets. After simulating the cocked arms of an archer, each dancer seems to ripple, melting like putty. To the quick stab of a violin, each bows her head toward the audience before exiting.

Wednesday evening's performance of Tiempo lacked charm and authority--qualities it needs to balance its choreographic simplicity. It used to be danced by Kitty Skillman-Hilsabeck, and she brought an engaging girlish perkiness to the role. Perhaps these dancers need time to grow into the choreography and project the cheeky devil-may-care quality it needs.

The program's moodiest piece, Ezralow's Read My Hips, explodes with a synthesized thunderclap and flash of strobe lights. The high-tech lighting and ferocious movement, like the postapocalyptic imagery of the Mad Max films, suggest energy just barely contained. The unrelenting athleticism of Ezralow's choreography flaunts the strength of the male dancers. In a section reminiscent of Saturday-night wrestling, Chaves and Arias grapple like gladiators, catapulting toward one another. Alternately caught in mid-flight, ignored, or thrown overhead, they recover with cartwheels and rolls across the floor. This is visceral in-your-face dancing that gets the adrenaline pumping. Swan Lake fans need not apply.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eileen Glenn.

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