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By Hedy Weiss
For Too Beaucoup, the fiendishly difficult work she created for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago last winter, Israeli choreographer Sharon Eyal costumed the dancers in identical flesh-colored body suits, platinum wigs, and face-altering white contact lenses. The idea was to give them a seamlessly uniform, robotic look. But the irony was that the more they were made to look the same, and, in certain sequences move like a contingent of zombies, the more clearly the distinctive personalities and modes of physical attack of the dancers began to emerge.
This intriguing duality—the flawless ensemble spirit wedded to fierce individuality—has been one of the defining qualities of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago since its founding in 1977 by Lou Conte, the former Broadway dancer and teacher with a quietly visionary sensibility. And it has remained a constant even as the company has evolved in the ensuing 34 years—first under Conte himself, then under his successor, Jim Vincent (at Hubbard Street from 2000–09, and now artistic director of the Nederlands Dans Theater), and, for the past two years, under the leadership of Glenn Edgerton (a former Joffrey Ballet dancer who served as artistic director of the Nederlands troupe for a decade).
Along with that sense of being both “the many and the one,” Hubbard Street’s dancers have continually demonstrated an ability to morph brilliantly through the whole gamut of contemporary styles, with a repertoire that includes demanding work by Ohad Naharin, Jirí Kylián, Nacho Duato, William Forsythe, Jorma Elo, Daniel Ezralow, Twyla Tharp, Aszure Barton, and company member Alejandro Cerrudo, who does double duty as resident choreographer. Like gifted linguists who can pick up any language almost on first hearing, they have a sponge-like ability to absorb a choreographer’s movement vocabulary, not simply imitating it, but making it fully their own.
For the company’s 2011–12 season, Edgerton, a soft-spoken man who clearly has forged a close bond with his dancers, has made big plans designed to challenge the company in additional ways. He has invited Tharp, who made Hubbard Street a repository of some of her most significant pieces in the early 1990s, to create a new work on the company with its world premiere set for Oct. 13–16 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Chicago’s Millennium Park.
Edgerton also has begun a multiyear collaboration with the cerebral but dynamic Bay Area choreographer Alonzo King and his company, LINES Ballet. And while plans for the project are still evolving, the idea is for King to create a new work that both companies will premiere in 2012—first in Chicago, and then on tour. (For a warm-up, Hubbard Street danced Following the Subtle Current Upstream last season, a work King initially created for the Ailey company.)
“My goal for Hubbard Street is to challenge my dancers to their full potential, and to refuse to recognize a ceiling,” says Edgerton, whose grand mission contrasts with his understated, slightly elliptical personal style. “I also want to challenge our audiences—their intellect and their expectations. I don’t want anyone—dancers or spectators—to start feeling comfortable. And I think Hubbard Street can be a catalyst for what is next in contemporary dance—though the moment we get there it will become the known thing.”
Edgerton has long been struck by the Hubbard Street dancers’ “dynamism and energy, and by the real impact of their physicality as it comes across the orchestra pit.” And he considers his job with the company to have come with “a most blessed scenario.”
He points to Lou Conte’s “phenomenal vision” that brought the company to prominence, initially with his own audience-friendly, entertaining yet high-quality dances, and then with the work of world-class choreographers like Tharp and Kylián.
Lauding Vincent for infusing Hubbard Street’s rep with even more pieces by European masters, and with bringing a new intensity to the company, he also notes that “Jim started our annual collaboration with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and our site-specific experiments at the Illinois Institute of Technology and the Art Institute of Chicago.” Most crucially, Vincent began the Inside/Out Choreographic Workshops, loosely modeled on those at Nederlands Dans Theater, which have encouraged the company’s dancers (including the prolific Cerrudo) to create new work. “And now I’m free to build on all these things,” Edgerton says.
But why return to Tharp, who has spent much of the past decade creating Broadway shows, and who choreographs for ballet companies throughout the country?
“I see her as a wonderful bridge from where the company was, to where it might go,” says Edgerton. “And I’ve specifically asked her to push forward, prodding her to try new things in this work—just as she did in the early renegade stages of her career. I told her I hoped she would use my dancers as instruments that would push both her work and the company to the next step.”
Tharp clearly was intrigued by the proposal. At Hubbard Street’s gala in June—where she was presented with the company’s honorary Spotlight Award, and where she beamed uncharacteristically as she spoke about recently becoming a grandmother—she explained why.
“I like to take the greatest talent and ask it to do impossible, amazing things,” Tharp says. “In the studio we find a new way for our bodies and souls to function. We are scientific adventurers who know what we’ve discovered when we’re onstage. I made a deposit at Hubbard Street some years ago, and I hope to find the genetics of that long-ago deposit as I work here again. I’ve just come back to collect.”
A few weeks later, though she had only had one day of preliminary work with the dancers (rehearsals would not begin until late August, after this issue went to press), Tharp shared a few additional observations.
“What has always been of great value in Hubbard Street is the strength of the company’s women,” she says. “That really takes me back to where I started in the 1960s, when women could do all the partnering and had great strength in their upper backs. I want to utilize those strengths.”
Penny Saunders, who has danced with Hubbard Street since 2004, and who showcased her own choreography at the gala (a powerfully erotic duet in which she was partnered by fellow company member Jason Hortin), performed in a revival of Tharp’s playfully jazzy Baker’s Dozen, but never worked directly with the choreographer. So she is looking forward to this opportunity. A hummingbird-like dancer full of quick, precision-tooled moves, Saunders also has a solid perspective on the overall shape of the company now.
“We definitely have shrunk in size from our peak of 22 dancers some years ago,” Saunders says. “And that cuts two ways. It eliminates any hierarchy and puts a lot more pressure on all of us to stay healthy and to appear in almost every work on a program—and they tend to be large group pieces. But it also gives all the dancers a chance to be seen rather than fall through the cracks, including a young, gorgeous dancer like Jacqueline Burnett.”
“In addition,” she continues, “Glenn just has an amazing ability to have a personal relationship with each of the dancers. There is something liberating about the fact that, unlike Jim, he is not a choreographer whose works we perform. Yet in many ways he is taking us along a similar path, though we do tease him for being such a bun-head—so ballet-oriented in the way he dislikes messy hair, wants no bangs or clips, just a very clean look.”
For Cerrudo (“On the Rise,” Oct. 2007), Hubbard Street’s identity is still being shaped, and he is glad to be a part of the process. “We will still do the older and difficult works in our rep by Kylián, Forsythe, and Naharin,” says Cerrudo, who can be shy, loquacious, and droll in one sentence (and in one dance phrase, too). “But many companies do such pieces, so we also should branch out into something very experimental. I should say this is my view, not necessarily the artistic director’s.”
The truth is, even the most established choreographers love working with Hubbard Street, though, like Naharin, they often send others to teach the works, and then dash in for tweaking and troubleshooting in the final week or so of rehearsals.
“What I see in the Hubbard Street dancers is that they are people with skills and with passion,” says Naharin, whose Minus 16 long served as a signature piece for the company, and whose compilation work, Three to Max, which received its Hubbard Street debut last season, had audiences cheering. “They are a mature company, but the dancers are curious, eager, open-minded. And now it’s nice to have people who are familiar with doing my work, so that they can spend more time interpreting rather than learning a piece.”
Last year Canadian-born choreographer Aszure Barton (see cover story, April 2008) created a vivid, beautifully crafted piece titled Untouched for Hubbard Street. It was Barton’s first experience with the main company, but she very insightfully tapped into the character and expressive nature of each of the dancers.
“Working with them felt like working with family,” Barton says. “I didn’t have to build a process of trust. They are all very different and incredibly versatile, and they are capable of doing so many different choreographers’ works divinely. To walk into a studio and have that versatility, and to find their joy in collaboration, was wonderful. They are not cookie-cutter dancers. And they just rolled with every unpredictable change I made.”
As Hubbard Street prepares for the coming season, which will feature multiple engagements in Chicago, as well as its usual extensive touring schedule, there will be a lot more than Tharp on the menu. Slated for May are a work by Cerrudo and the company premiere of Forsythe’s elegiac but life-affirming 1993 piece Quintett. Meanwhile, Edgerton’s quest to champion the new will be played out on the stage of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, where, in January, the company will present a showcase of original choreography in its freshly envisioned project, danc(e)volve: New Works Festival. The future is on its way.
Hedy Weiss is theater and dance critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and for WTTW-TV’s Chicago Tonight.
What Glenn looks for in dancers
“It’s not always about the body and the technique, although they are major factors. It’s more the mindset that interests me; the spirit of curiosity, someone who’s relentless in exploring movement, who has a desire to make choreography unique and keep it fresh. Someone who’s clearly an artist and not expecting to be pulled along the way. Someone who is open to investigating their imagination and be creative when they are being choreographed on. To instill that desire is impossible. Of course you need to have a good, strong ballet technique and be able to move big, but you need to be inspired to delve into the movement as well.”
From top: Pablo Piantino and Penny Saunders in Extremely Close, by resident choreographer (and company member) Alejandro Cerrudo. Photo by Kristie Kahns; Robyn Mineko Williams in Ohad Naharin’s Three to Max. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy HSDC; Ana Lopez in Nacho Duato’s Arcangelo. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy HSDC; Tharp will premiere a new work for HSDC this month. Photo by Marc von Borstel, Courtesy HSDC; Penny Saunders and Alejandro Cerrudo. Photo by Kristie Kahns; Hubbard Street in Ohad Naharin’s Three to Max. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy HSDC.