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Hubbard Street Dance Chicago


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Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
at the Shubert Theatre, through May 2

Sometimes I think dance should be yanked out of the theater and put back where it belongs--in the streets. Dance has been on the stage for centuries of course, but like the rest of our society it's become ultraprofessional: we seem to feel that even the most personal tasks can be better accomplished by paid help. Instead of cultivating intimate relationships, we hire a massage therapist. Instead of making friends, we go to a psychiatrist. Instead of learning to cook, we eat out. And instead of dancing or making music ourselves, we pay to watch others do it.

True, professionals often do these things much better than we could. But something is lost when we concede so many rights and responsibilities to others. Dance producers are sometimes criticized for removing sacred forms from their cultural contexts--bharata natyam from the temple or traditional African religious dances from the village--and putting them onstage, ignoring or even undermining their spiritual goals. That transfer to the theater, however well-intentioned, introduces an artificiality that may be destructive not only to the original artists and art forms but to viewers: we're cut off from the restorative function dance has when one does it oneself for a specific purpose.

For better and for worse, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is the consummate professional company. Twenty-one years ago, when it was a troupe of four women performing in nursing homes and other modest venues, artistic director Lou Conte made a point of paying his dancers, a story he's told in numerous interviews. It's a telling bit of history--Hubbard Street has always taken pride both in treating its dancers decently and in their ability to do any dance well. Conte also made a decision years ago that fostered the troupe's professionalism: it would not be an outlet for his own creative efforts but a company so accomplished technically that it could master the work of any choreographer. What has prevented this talented group from becoming soulless is Conte's decency.

That decency--and a fantastic eye for what's pleasing in dance--underlies the acquisition of a third piece by Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato this season. Rassemblement ("The Gathering"), which Duato originally made for the Cullberg Ballet in 1990, has a genuine moral backbone: more than any other dance I've seen Hubbard Street do, it relies on a sense of justice and moral outrage. It may even be political. A piece for eight dancers in five sections, it tells the story of a man brutalized by police or the military for no apparent reason; broken or perhaps dead, he's reunited with his lover in reality or in a dream, and finally his community is reunited in expressions of strength and solidarity.

Haitian composer Toto Bissainthe's music is definitive. Its drums, sounds from nature, and raw, sometimes keening voices establish a rural setting and tradition, also expressed in dipping motions of the women's backs while they kneel, as if they were washing clothes in a river, and in shawls pulled over their heads in an age-old gesture of mourning. The piece is inexpressibly musical, especially the second-section solo for the man who's attacked (Ron De Jesus, who danced the part with incomparable fluidity and strength) and the fourth-section duet for him and his lover (Jennita Russo, as light and solid as a nail). The man's solo captures the grace and wary alertness of those who live close to nature, and the duet passionately conveys the longing for reunion between lovers separated by death or oppression. Rassemblement is a rich dance, and Hubbard Street does it very well indeed.

But to watch it on opening night in the company of bejeweled, air-kissing matrons and tuxedoed, networking businessmen was a strange experience. The dance's tragic characters and situation were light-years away from the atmosphere in the theater, and the "perfected" traditional forms seemed mere diversions for rich folk. Here the company's professionalism worked against the dance, which I'd found far more moving in rehearsal, with the dancers in ragtag clothes under fluorescent lights. Unfortunately almost no one will ever see it stripped of its theatrical trappings, bones bare.

For a dance company, being professional means living and breathing the theater, and perhaps for that reason Hubbard Street succeeds best with dances that do the same. Jiri Kylian's 1986 Sechs Tanze ("Six Dances"), which the company premiered last year, is a sparkling little comic gem that takes the theater as its subject. Nothing is serious or real in this octet set to Mozart, with its alternating color-coded sections: fluffy white ones with the dancers in 18th-century pantaloons or breeches, powder flying from their faces and wigs, and "dark" red and black ones with a mysterious story involving roses, swords, and off-the-shoulder gowns. In its campy way, Sechs Tanze transforms all drama into melodrama.

Group Therapy--Chicago choreographer Harrison McEldowney's new piece for Hubbard Street--does much the same, though it breathes the air of American vaudeville. Relying on brief, bold character sketches for its broad humor, the dance features four couples in a group-therapy session whose duets convey in a matter of seconds their fundamental problems; obliquely, McEldowney addresses the pathologies underlying a lot of relationships. The first couple (Kendra Moore and Geoff Myers) rely on fighting for a sexual charge, while the man in the second (Mark Swanhart) is too fastidious for intimacy with his starved wife (Jeannie Engel). For most of the third duet a woman too intelligent for her own good (Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck, back with the company this season) successfully hides her smoking from her lover (Joseph P. Pantaleon). And the hapless final couple are mopes too lazy and inept to sustain a relationship, as the woman (Mary Nesvadba) regularly falls asleep in the arms of her man (Jamy Meek), who regularly sneezes and drops her. The score--quirky popular songs from past decades--embellishes material that's already pretty obvious, but because the Hubbard Street dancers put their full weight into these lightweight characters and situations, Group Therapy succeeds.

Another new piece this season, Kevin O'Day's duet To Have and to Hold, also explores romantic relationships. This piece too is fundamentally theatrical--perhaps too theatrical, as O'Day relies on the music and lighting to establish an otherwise unmotivated change in his characters' relationship. The first of the piece's two musical selections, by Guy Klucevsek, is grinding and dirgelike, and the man and woman (Joseph Mooradian and Russo) seem burdensome to each other, even hostile: the piece opens with Russo kneeling on Mooradian's back as he crawls onstage, periodically collapsing under her weight; a hand poked into a stomach looks like a blow. But as the second section begins, the lighting warms and the music freshens and the couple are suddenly loving, freely supporting or propelling each other. O'Day's signature phrase in the second section--the dancers come suddenly face-to-face, look away, and briefly roll their hips--effectively captures the involuntary twitch of sexual attraction, but I wondered where all the loving-kindness came from, beyond the choreographer's determination to move from a troubled relationship to a happy one.

Hubbard Street never does a dance badly--that's part of its professionalism. And it spends oodles on costumes, lighting, and choreography from around the world. It's a good-hearted troupe whose good humor and good intentions are there for everyone to see. But it succeeds best at pieces that maintain an ironic distance from real life. Some dance should be left to the amateurs.

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

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