Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

April 13, 1999

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

Shubert Theatre

Chicago, Illinois

April 13-May 2, 1999

Reviewed by Ann Barzel

This professional company was founded twenty-one years ago by its artistic director, Lou Conte, as an outlet for several tap dancers trained in his school on Chicago’s Hubbard Street. He never intended the group to grow into a major dance company noted for sophistication and artistry, but that’s what happened. The original group, nurtured by Conte’s expert Broadway-style choreography and enlarged and enhanced by a number of well-trained and attractive dancers, became a paragon of bright entertainment. That could have been the right direction for a successful dance company, but, guided by Conte’s evolving taste, the company took a different heading and an accepting public was happy to follow. Loyal audiences have filled theaters ever since, as they did during the recent three-week engagement in the 2,000-seat Shubert Theatre.

Added this season to HSDC’s varied repertory choreographed by Jirí Kylián, Nacho Duato, Margo Sappington, Twyla Tharp, Lynne Taylor-Corbett, Daniel Ezralow, et al. were a Chicago premiere of another Duato piece and works by Harrison McEldowney, Kevin O’Day, and Susan Hadley.

The Duato piece, Rassemblement (The Gathering), projects a scene of common folk in drab raiment protesting the cruelty of a police state. To songs of pathos by Haitian Toto Bissainthe, the versatile Hubbard Street dancers‹more often tuned to blithe escapades‹gave impassioned performances that drew audiences into the horrors they danced about. Noteworthy were the powerful performances by the company’s women dancers. In Duato’s choreography they were not pretty girls or fashionable young ladies, but strong, earthy women who live in a world that does not know gaiety. The several casts all successfully conveyed this highly emotional atmosphere.

In a lighter mood was Group Therapy, the new piece by McEldowney. Like many of this witty choreographer’s highly original works, Group Therapy is a humorous episode, an entity reminiscent of the clever skits in the revue of the same name that made history on Broadway some decades back. The four couples in the ballet revealed in peripatetic dance the problems that made their married lives intolerable. McEldowney is a fine dancer who excels in partnering, and the several pas de deux he devised for the belligerent pairs were physically astounding as well as amusing. The proceedings were also enlivened by a virtuosic solo by a betrayed husband. Garnering laughs was the guy who couldn’t bear to be touched practicing extremes of neatness. Most hilarious was the persistent puffing at her cigarette by an addicted damsel while she was being tossed or entwined in unusual pas de deux positions. This role was danced best by a completely insouciant Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck. For all this therapeutic mayhem the choreographer selected a mélange of music by Cole Porter and George Gershwin, and impudently ending with classical strains by Fritz Kreisler.

Kevin O’Day, who has previously contributed successfully to the Hubbard Street repertory, made To Have and to Hold, a ten-minute pas de deux to music by Guy Klucevsek. It was all unique intertwinings and lifts?nary a dance step. Different casts gave different senses to the piece. When performed by petite Jennita Russo and excellent dancer Joseph Mooradian, one saw a lyrical number in which a gallant lover cherished his lively lady. When two tall and strong dancers such as Meredith Dincolo and David Gomez performed the dance, it became a friendly tussle by a trusting pair of equals.

The opening passages of Susan Hadley’s almost-new Blue Grass (danced summer of 1998 at the Ravinia Festival) were reminiscent of Twyla Tharp’s choreographic signature?dancers dashing out of and thrown back into the stage wings. The rest of the ballet, set to folksy tunes performed by Mark O’Connor, consisted of undistinguished cavorting. The piece, not memorable, will probably be filed among other short-lived works. The season included excellent performances of familiar works?Duato’s Jardi Tancat, Taylor-Corbett’s Duet, Ezralow’s Read My Hips, and, performed most often and most applauded, Kylián’s hilarious romp to Mozart’s Sechs Tœnze.

HSDC is a choreographer-oriented company, and behind its success is a treasure trove of fine works by outstanding dancemakers. However, it is the talent of twenty-some superb dancers that illuminates the beauty and meanings of the wisely commissioned works: the exuberant Russo; handsome and protean Mooradian; especially beautiful and technically expert Shan Bai; expressive Ron De Jesus; powerful Geoff Myers; and the aforementioned Hilsabeck. A favorite from a Hubbard Street of an earlier era, Hilsabeck has returned after nine seasons in Broadway musicals and she has proved to be as youthful and spirited as before; now more versatile. There is not a weak dancer in this company.

For reviews of other works in Hubbard Street’s repertory, see HSDChicago, Dance Magazine [August 1998, p. 74]