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HUBBARD STREET DANCE COMPANY

at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

April 28, 29, and 30, May 1, 5, 6, and 7, 1988

No one ever taught Lou Conte to leave well enough alone, apparently. Three years ago, at the height of his popular and critical success, Conte decided to tamper with a sure thing called Hubbard Street Dance Company. He announced that Hubbard Street would not dance its regular Chicago seasons, and that he planned a temporary retirement from choreographing and teaching. Though he did not dance, Conte was Hubbard Street: his winsome choreography suited his snazzy band of dancers like a platinum setting made especially for a certain five-carat diamond. Because the movement suited them so well, all the Hubbard Street dancers--but especially Claire Bataille, Ginger Farley, Rick Hilsabeck, and Carlton Quade Wilborn--exuded charm and glamour with every high kick and flick of the wrist.

Conte decided charm and glamour weren't enough: he wanted Hubbard Street to include ballet and modern idioms as well as the company's signature jazz. He announced that the company would soon be dancing more new works commissioned from outside choreographers, works created to challenge and stimulate rather than showcase and exploit.

Conte's tampering has paid off: the first week of performances marking Hubbard Street's tenth anniversary reveals that the dancers are richer and more expressive performers from their exposure to new teachers, new styles of movement, and an expanded dance vocabulary. Two premieres featured this season, And Now This and Step Out of Love, both choreographed by Margo Sappington, illustrate just how the company has changed.

And Now This begins with the company scattered, each dancer standing in a shallow lunge with arms arched overhead, a forest of silhouettes against a deep blue background. Ballet provides the raw material for the first section: developpes, turns, lifts, beating feet, tours jetes. The partnering is simplified, the dancers' attack softened: the focus is upon the movement itself, not the performers' personalities or virtuosity. The company dissolves into three smaller groups, coalesces, dissolves. In this section, tone, color, and structure as well as movement content are classical.

The second section opens with five dancers standing in a line close to the wings. One dancer steps to the side; his partner follows him, melting and drooping; he catches her head in his elbow, cradles it there. Two couples--Lynn Sheppard and Wilborn, Shannon D. Mitchell and Sven Toorvald--plie, developpe, and turn. Leslie Stevens is the odd woman out, contracting and extending her way across the stage, around and between them. Sheppard and Mitchell surround the men, slide down their torsos, slip away. The second section is languid and sensuous, informed by the unself-consciousness of the modern dance sensibility rather than the artful self-consciousness of the jazz style.

And now, in its third section, And Now This moves into the jazz vocabulary. Set on Bataille, Hilsabeck, and Ron De Jesus, the final section is hip and sassy. They walk with small, precise pelvic tilts, miniature flicks of energy. The trio becomes a quintet, an octet; suddenly the stage erupts--a dramatic leap into plie, a shimmy of shoulders, of pelvis, of an entire body. The company wheels and struts, arms caress the air with a languor nearly as sexual as sensual. Very briefly, the lights warm and the stage explodes with movement carrying the subtlest hint of tap. Suddenly, And Now This takes us back to the beginning, to the 15 silhouettes.

Step Out of Love, its companion piece, is even more of a departure for the company. The movement is densely layered, so intricate its structure is difficult to perceive. Step Out begins in smoky dimness with five women--Bataille, Sandi Cooksey, Farley, Sheppard, and Stevens--scattered about the stage in various leaden attitudes, some sitting on Lucite folding chairs, some sprawling on the floor. The movement is spare and eccentric, equally detached from the ballet, jazz, and traditional modern vocabularies: a leg stutters and twitches; one dancer jerks and flops to the floor; another nibbles and worries her nail. In the extended first section of Step Out, the choreography establishes its key movements--a stroking of the inner thighs, an odd backwards scrabble on hands and feet, a slap of the palm, a back roll--in a series of overlapping, unrelated solos.

Step Out is hard-edged; it bespeaks an almost postpunk aesthetic. Robert Wierzel's bars of brilliant light focus out toward the audience; Steve Forsyth's score, neither rock nor minimalist, blares; Christian Holder's costume design features black, blurred and splattered layers of fabric. The dancers relate neither to each other nor to the audience; they do not even smile. Hype gives way to hyperactivity, an utter inversion of Hubbard Street's old performance style. Sappington paints the movement in an urban, streetwise palette: Step Out is as up-to-date as the latest music video. (Will it be dated as soon?) The unison section that closes Step Out is one of the most satisfying moments of the evening--crisp, sharply etched. Dancing doesn't get much better than this.

The old Hubbard Street Dance Company wouldn't have attempted these two premieres. And Now This and Step Out of Love lack the tricks and theatrics, the precocious nostalgia and Broadway virtuosity that brought the company its success. Hubbard Street's diversification capitalizes on their greatest asset--the strength, grace, power, and beauty of their dancing. Fortunately Lou Conte didn't leave well enough alone.

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

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