Hubbard Street evolves with a 'new paradigm' | Dance | Chicago Reader

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Hubbard Street evolves with a 'new paradigm'

Space, perspective, and introversion feature thematically in new online dance pieces.

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On March 12, the dancers of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago were onstage preparing for opening night of their spring program, Ohad Naharin’s DECADANCE/CHICAGO, at the Harris Theater. They continued to rehearse until 5 PM, the hour when Governor J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced guidelines for the cancellation of large-scale and community events to stem the spread of COVID-19. “How could we justify performing [that] night when the following day was not safe?” recalls artistic director Glenn Edgerton. With performers at the ready, the show was canceled just hours before curtain.

Yet while many companies have furloughed dancers during the lockdown, HSDC has continued to create in quarantine. “We immediately kicked into gear. We started having virtual classes, we started a lot of activity online, and we’ve been thriving,” says Edgerton. Though its season at the Harris has been canceled, HSDC is moving forward with Unbound: A Virtual Season Finale, with virtual performances of Peter Chu’s Space, in Perspective, Robyn Mineko Williams’s Undercover Episode 018: Home Video, and (stay)Inside/Out, the annual showcase of choreography by HSDC dancers. For a company nearly always seen polished to perfection on a proscenium, the pandemic has prompted a “new paradigm,” says Edgerton, of work that is rehearsed from home for presentation over Zoom and Vimeo, placing the company in previously unimaginable spaces and situations. “There is a great spirit of collectivity from the company, and I’m thrilled on a daily basis to see their ingenuity and how they have put themselves into this new world order.”

Sheltering in Place with Space, In Perspective

“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” This quotation, broadly attributed to Maya Angelou, was the seed for choreographer Peter Chu’s Space, In Perspective. Created with HSDC and its new professional training program HSPro in 2017, the piece ambitiously roamed the Harris Theater, bringing audiences through scenes in hallways, dressing rooms, and loading docks, to finish with viewers and dancers onstage together, facing the empty seats of the theater. “I want to show the liminal space in dance—the space between, the uncertainty, the rarely admitted experiences of dancers, by allowing the audience to breathe with them, hold their hands, dance with them,” says Chu.   

In the weeks leading up to the lockdown, Chu had been working with HSDC and HSPro to revise the piece for (in Edgerton’s words) “a normal setting, where the audience is sitting in the audience, and the dancers are behind a proscenium.” Post-lockdown, Chu continued to work with HSPro remotely from his home in Las Vegas, when Edgerton approached him to continue his process with the company. “I said, ‘What does this mean? The dancers haven’t had time to grieve. I haven’t had time to grieve. Our world has turned upside down.’”

Chu let movement and meditation lead the way. “The first week, I just taught class, a mindfulness movement class based on [Chinese energy and martial arts practices] qi gong, tai chi, and improvisation. I wanted to be sensitive to the dancers’ space. I tried to understand where they all were. We had private meetings after class to understand what they felt comfortable doing and sharing. After that week, I thought, you know what? I think we can pull off a virtual Space, In Perspective. I don’t think it should be a performance. I think now is not the time for product. I want to throw that word away. It needs to be a sharing and an experience. This is a time for our communities to come together.”

The newest iteration of Space, in Perspective, designed for Zoom, retains Chu’s original vision of sharing and gathering in an array of spaces real and virtual, with scenes HSDC dancers perform live from home, as well as interactive experiences in breakout rooms that invite audiences to breathe, dance, and move along. “It was 100 percent collaborative,” says Chu. “David Schultz plays piano, and his father plays saxophone, so we incorporated live music. David said, ‘I have a camera,’ so I was like, let’s make a film. I tried to use inspiration from all of them.” HSDC artistic liaison Jonathan Alsberry, by all accounts a Zoom “mastermind,” stepped in as technical director. “The material from the past was the starting point, and we riffed from there.” 

Of the process, Alysia Johnson, who joined the company in 2018, says the work was introspective and healing: “Peter’s approach is to focus on our feeling, whether that’s physical or mental. We used several techniques, [including] qi gong and traditional Chinese medicine. The whole process is cultivating life energy. It has a free range of amplitude and intensity of physical exertion, so it was great to feel I have choices and options when in reality I don’t have many choices and options for physical activity now.”

Jacqueline Burnett says, “Peter was very open. He let the dancers tell him what was possible. My scenes around the theater [had been] choreographed. We had to make them fit into different spaces, so this virtual experience became more improvised for me. But because I already had a language of choreography from Peter, it was a transition that was comfortable to make.” 

“It didn’t change the process much for me. He directed it, but it was hands-off [and] lends itself well to doing in a more removed way,” says Schultz, who played vibraphone, piano, and harmonica, and improvised during scenes at the Harris. Furthermore, he notes, the situation has prompted new outlets for creativity: in anticipation of a government stimulus check, Schultz availed himself of a camera, editing software, and filmmaking classes. “I felt this [quarantine] was going to be a long time, so let’s learn to make video. I mentioned it to Peter, and he immediately tasked us with making a movie. I’m so glad I had the opportunity. And I’m still waiting for that check!”

For experienced dancers, the work has sometimes been disorienting. “After our first virtual experience with Peter [a private showing for HSDC friends and family], I broke down in tears,” recalls Burnett. “What is this? Live performance has such immediate feedback, and with this virtual experience, I was like, what did we just do? I can’t even imagine what it felt like for someone in a completely different space and environment.” Schultz adds, “With the technical snafus that occur, there is a level of stress and a level of amateurism we’re not at all used to. We [usually] feel uninhibited. Nothing about live shows throws me off anymore. Now it feels very intense.”

Ultimately, however, the risk yielded rewards. “An hour later, people started calling and sharing their experiences of being there, and it did do what we hoped it would do, and then I felt better,” says Burnett. “It’s a learning curve that we’re having to experience. Hopefully we’ll come out better artists.” Adds Johnson, “My dad, mom, and grandmother participated. Not only were they able to watch the performance, but they were able to move and get educated. I’m a young educator myself, so this experience is going to go into my toolbox.”

“What I like about this time is that we’re able to be creative, and we’re healing through our creativity,” says Chu. “We don’t have the theater, but a part of it is still with us. We’re doing the best we can with a lot of obstacles, so let’s celebrate that. I don’t feel we should do a show. This is about connection.”

User Experience and Undercover Episodes

Choreographer and former HSDC dancer Robyn Mineko Williams was also developing new work with HSDC to premiere this spring when the pandemic halted the process. “In March, when the lockdown went into effect, I did a small video project [Create with Hubbard] right off the bat. After that, I didn’t know what to do. Peter was in an online process, and it was offered to me to do the same, to continue rehearsals over Zoom. I didn’t do that because I wanted to know what I was working towards. Was I working towards finishing the piece for the stage or livestream?” 

Like Chu, Williams realized the time was ripe for exploring how dancers are inhabiting their homes with Undercover Episodes, a 50-minute work initially created for a theater and since developed into a site-malleable work. Since its 2016 premiere at Links Hall, Williams has restaged the work in a variety of spaces, including homes, bars, and art galleries. “It’s the same piece, the same music, the same order, the same choreography, but it feels different in each space, and there’s a rotation of dancers coming in and out of the work.”

Undercover Episodes was initially inspired by Susan Cain’s 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. “I was thinking about that weird juxtaposition of being so confident, wild, and fearless onstage, when in real life, I did not feel the same at all,” says Williams. Her extroverted brother JT Williams, who created projections for the work, pushed her to focus on the audience first. “He’s a graphic designer/art director in user experience, so he’s always thinking about that. At Hubbard Street, we weren’t conditioned to think about the audience. We were grateful to have them, but I was thinking about what was happening between the artists.” The conversation resulted in unconventional seating arrangements at the premiere. “We decided to give the audience the choice to sit in the bleachers or sit in chairs spread around the dance floor at Links, which naturally wove into the idea of introversion and extroversion and comfort with being in the action or further away to see the fuller picture.”

After seeing that the piece worked at close proximity, Williams decided to restage it in another setting. “We tested the idea at the Violet Hour in Wicker Park to see what it looked like in a space that has a lot of character, as opposed to the clean blank slate of Links Hall. That was a first taste of putting Undercover Episodes into new environments. It worked so well that we decided to continue.” Transferring the work to alternative venues also gave the project an unexpected reach. “It allowed us to bring dance to people and places that would not otherwise seek dance or see dance,” says Williams, citing a pop-up performance at Humboldt Park’s Sportsman’s Club. “There are so many people who think of dance as something you can’t understand or something you have to buy an $80 ticket [to see]. Humans move. Humans dance. It’s about people, a feeling, a vibe. It doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating.”

For Undercover Episodes 018: Home Video, Williams says, “Every dancer in Hubbard Street is involved. In some households, there are three dancers quarantining together, which is great for trios and duets!” The process is collaborative and geared to quarantine: “I bought a projector and some LEDs and put together a little lighting package that we’re wiping down and passing to a few of the houses, and we’re filming remotely. I’m usually on FaceTime. I virtually tour all the spaces. We set up the lights together, set up the projection, set the framing and the cinematography. They film on their phones and send it to me, and we adjust.”

“It doesn’t feel like a COVID piece to me,” says Williams. “It feels like something we would do in time regardless, make a film. The way we have to make it is affected by our current time, but what I love most about this project is that it feels kind of normal. It’s been really nice to feel at home again. This is what we do. This is how we work.”  v

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