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Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, through May 6

By Kelly Kleiman

Superlatives applied to Hubbard Street Dance Chicago barely register these days. Of course it dances challenging choreography brilliantly. But on the program I saw, the company does something even more remarkable: offer a unified vision of the zeitgeist. Three premieres and one repertory piece hold up a gigantic, flashy mirror to the audience, portraying variations on the themes of isolation, atomization, and the loss of community. More amazing still, the evening is a joyous one. Look, it seems to say, this is where we are. This is who we are. It may be difficult and confusing, it may be lonely, but it's certainly exciting. As danced by Hubbard Street, in fact, it's utterly thrilling.

The program opens with Harrison McEldowney's Flatline, a world premiere performed to the sound track of Run Lola Run. The piece shares with the film a feeling of contingency, fragmentation, and constant redirection. The dancers wear torn jeans and shirts made from scraps of the American flag, and their defiant stance and moves pay homage to Jerome Robbins's gang choreography in West Side Story. (The final tableau of Tony and Maria appears as well.) The brilliant female lead, Cheryl Mann, spends much of the piece being tossed from man to man, yet she seems invisible to them, as the men are largely invisible to one another. They catch her in impossible leaps and dives but offhandedly, as if they were thinking of a thousand other things. In one "pas de deux," Mann and Gregory Sample stand at opposite sides of the stage jerking like marionettes, revealing hardly any connection.

Here--as in Without Walls, the program's other world premiere--the women receive much more tender partnering from one another than from the men, but even those connections dissolve almost as soon as they're made. Perhaps the audience's momentary silence at the end of Flatline--they seemed uncertain whether the dance was over--reflects the incongruity of an ensemble finale in a piece about the scarcity and fragility of togetherness. Todd L. Clark's lighting amplifies this theme, especially in a drag race lit by headlights from either side: participants can literally see things only by their own lights. Nothing is clear to all.

The Chicago premiere of Ohad Naharin's 1989 pas de deux Passomezzo, set to "Greensleeves" and other English folk tunes, brings the same solipsistic perspective to intimate relationships. Expectations set by the romantic music are immediately undercut when Jamy Meek appears in a suit jacket but no pants or shirt--just black bike shorts, suspenders, and knee pads. Mann joins him onstage only slightly more appropriately dressed for love in white negligee and leggings. No sooner does he begin to woo her than he loses interest--she's prepared to succumb but he fails to pursue, duckwalking away or reaching to where she's not. After she stands on him he finally gets the idea, but it turns out that his romantic attentions are worse than his neglect: Mann goes through the figures of an English country dance carrying Meek on her back. Once again the performers are clearly happiest dancing in parallel instead of together; even their final embrace is ass-backward, with her legs wrapped around him while she faces away. Though their alienation is palpable, it's not painful. It's just a wryly observed fact of life.

Ron De Jesus's extraordinary Without Walls contrasts the joys and pains of solitude with those of companionship. In "Flow," a balletic solo by the superb Lauri Stallings, her self-protective arm and torso movements suggest isolation and confusion even as her demi-plie conveys groundedness and self-sufficiency. In "Staccato," three men (Sample, Meek, and De Jesus) slide and gambol bare chested, posing for one another and for themselves. They manage to look simultaneously like the trio of sailors in Robbins's Fancy Free and like contemporary boy toys. "Lyrical" begins with Stallings and Kendra Moore appearing onstage alternately, wearing identical costumes and making similar gestures. The two look so much alike that their appearance onstage together has the astonishing feel of a special effect. Like the men, the women show off, but unlike them they also partner each other lovingly. "Chaos" features all five dancers leaping into one another's arms, caught but never held. The piece concludes with Stallings in "Stillness," alone again and this time lonely.

The Robbins allusions seem no accident: he was a master at capturing an era's essence. But giddiness in the 50s and resolvable conflicts in the 60s have given way to a new mix, self-sufficiency with an undercurrent of something missing and a wide, mean streak of indifference to one another. Likewise the recurrence of assaultive lighting, shining in the audience's face, is perfect for conveying the shock of the new even to those who consider themselves inured.

Of the four dances, Daniel Ezralow's 1990 Read My Hips comments most directly on community and its discontents--sections in which every dancer does something different are followed by ones performed in robotic lockstep. Grouping themselves into a sort of head-waving paramecium, they scurry around the stage dropping off individuals in weird attitudes, then sucking them up again. As the piece goes on, dancers strip down from black shirts and sweatpants to skimpy unitards and bikinis, but there's no sign that revelation of the eponymous hips will deliver any satisfying connection--or even eros. One man leaps and another refuses to catch him; standing or sitting dancers scarcely notice those acting as beasts of burden beneath them. Two men wrestle intently, then break apart without a backward glance. Even the frankly sexual section is intentionally unerotic, and the couple left standing seem no happier than the singletons fallen around them.

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

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