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Movies for the Stage

Alejandro Cerrudo's dances for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago play with film conventions.

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Hubbard Street Dance Chicago Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 4/1-4/5

Few if any choreographers use the rag-and-bone shop of dancing to reproduce the conventions of film, and for good reason. Dance unfolds in real time and space, in the medium of human bodies, and there are no retakes or digital fixes. Film makes it possible to defy the rules that ordinary human beings have to obey—physical and emotional.

But Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's choreographic wunderkind Alejandro Cerrudo, also a dancer, has done it more than once. His taste for cinema is essentially a taste for the transforming image, the quicksilver shift in perspective that film can so effortlessly provide. Watching his loopy new septet Off Screen—part of HSDC's spring show at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance—is like spending a day at the multiplex, moving from one theater to another.

Cerrudo's first attempt at making dances behave like movies was 2008's Extremely Close, whose ingenious lighting and blank white walls on wheels produced a cinematic cutting effect. Off Screen is even more thorough and successful. Its central scenic element is a giant, floaty piece of shimmering fabric, sparkly black on one side, silver on the other. Manipulated mostly by the dancers, it can form a billowing, cloudlike floor, loom overhead like a threatening sky, or suddenly cover the performers or pull one of them offstage. Like the rough-hewn wall of Johan Inger's Walking Mad, which Hubbard Street first performed last December, it shifts shapes and paradigms.

Cerrudo sets Off Screen mostly to selections from film scores, though he never uses them in an obvious or kitschy way. I didn't recognize the music from There Will Be Blood or Pan's Labyrinth, and yet excerpts from these and other soundtracks are so lushly, instantly emotional that their cinematic origin is immediately apparent. A quote from Stanley Kubrick in the program sets up the dance's premise: "A film is—or should be—more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings."

Off Screen's dramatically divergent vignettes offer a quick tour of the film universe. With their suspenders and high-waisted pants, the costumes by Branimira hint at the silent era. So does a Chaplin-esque move in which the dancers achieve lift-off seemingly by tugging up the backs of their own shirts. A moody, otherworldly male-female duet that ends in sudden collapse and separation suggests the movies' tragic, magical love affairs. A section set to anxiety-producing pizzicato strings might be a chase scene, complete with dancers doing runner's lunges in place.

But the piece's heart belongs to comedy. Set in front of the cloth hung straight down (a literal silver screen), the swiftly rendered visual jokes of several lighthearted bits recall Cerrudo's first dance for Hubbard Street, Lickety-Split, in their quirkiness. There's a (slightly too cute) shy love scene and a rivalrous male duet right out of a buddy flick. Funniest, though, is a scene reminiscent of early film comedies: a bewildered man enters, looking around in confusion, only to be accosted by a Keystone Kops-like clump of dancers holding hands, twiddling in on pivoting feet.

Given its variety, Off Screen threatens to explode. But it's held together by a few movement motifs—chiefly a backward wave of the torso originating at the head, following through in the chest and pelvis, and suggesting a swoon, a surrender to some spell. That, combined with the piece's constant cutting between drama and comedy, reminded me of Shakespeare's transformative late romances, where everything turns out right in the end no matter what.

The other four pieces on the program live in more quotidian worlds. Andrea Miller's sextet Blush, a Chicago premiere performed here by Hubbard Street 2, opens with the sound of electronic buzzing. Its three female dancers—whose costumes suggest a cross between the Flintstones and spacemen—make buglike, contorted shapes, rocking in deep plies with arms overhead or hunching over at the waist. Meanwhile the men, arrayed behind them, slowly roll onstage like windblown cloth. With its pastiche of eclectic music, dramatic lighting and shadows, and occasionally striking movement, Blush is stylish. But it doesn't go beyond a defiant coldness.

Blush's purposeful alienation recalls early works by longtime Hubbard Street collaborator Daniel Ezralow, especially his 20-year-old Super Straight Is Coming Down. Like Super Straight, Ezralow's piece on this program—2004's SF/LB—examines a sea change from conformity to rebellion. It even opens with similar 1950s-style costumes. Set to Leonard Bernstein's jazzy Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, it does what it sets out to do: entertain wittily.

Ditto Lucas Crandall's 2004 duet Gimme, which has a gimmick: a string that sometimes acts as a leash, linking its lovers in shifting power trips, bringing them up short, or bringing them together. It's brief, fun, and sexy.

A revival of the 2002 Counter/Part, by HSDC artistic director Jim Vincent, reveals a more serious purpose. Vincent—who's leaving the company next fall, after nine years, for a post as artistic director of Nederlands Dans Theater—can be maddeningly literal, but this piece has both a clear evolution and a teasing, dark, ambiguous edge. Danced to music by Bach, including the Brandenburg Concertos, it mines an 18th-century preoccupation, setting civilization against nature in a dialectic uneasily reconciled. Two natural—and less-clothed—dancers, one male and one female, seduce members of a courtly crowd into wildness. But there are potentially ugly ramifications to the woman's liaisons: they don't seem entirely voluntary. She doesn't choose, but is chosen.v

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