Hubbard Street Dance Chicago Is Returning to Stability—And Its Roots
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performed to sold-out crowds in New York City last February. Audiences similarly flocked to the Museum of Contemporary Art a month later for their packed spring series at home. The resounding message, across the country, was that Hubbard Street is back.
Chicago’s leading repertory company struggled, as all dance companies did, during the pandemic. But years of turnover and financial challenges had been creating uncertainty well before COVID-19 lockdowns began.
In March, Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell rounded the bend on two years in the artistic director’s chair. Picked to usher Hubbard Street through the turmoil and into a new era, Fisher-Harrell has proved a savvy and steadying leader, leaving her mark on the company while honoring its past.
Fisher-Harrell is just the fourth director in Hubbard Street’s 46-year history—the first woman and first person of color to serve that role. Founder Lou Conte was artistic director for 23 years, followed by Jim Vincent and Glenn Edgerton. The company was not new to Fisher-Harrell; she had danced with Hubbard Street prior to a storied performance career with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
When Fisher-Harrell auditioned for Hubbard Street in 1989, “I couldn’t take my eyes off of her,” says Conte, who was director at the time. “Nobody was as charismatic as her.”
Fisher-Harrell spent three seasons with the company. Though brief, her time there left an impression. The 19-year-old woman who arrived in Chicago in 1989 is often in her consciousness today.
“I was [at Hubbard Street] during the Tharp era,” she says, referencing a transformative multiyear commissioning project adopting new and existing works by Twyla Tharp. “When I envision Hubbard Street into the future, that’s the image that grounds me.”
Fisher-Harrell leaned on Conte and former Ailey artistic director Judith Jamison as mentors as she navigated company leadership for the first time. “They were so powerful to me as artistic directors,” she says. “I’m asking for guidance or perspectives that I may or may not take. Either way, those relationships anchor me.”
A key priority from the get-go has been reconnecting with audiences. Before Fisher-Harrell’s directorship, a handful of highly entertaining programs were keeping the bills paid, like The Art of Falling (2014), a collaboration with The Second City, and Decadance/Chicago (2018), an evening-length assortment of Ohad Naharin works. But a critical mass of working-class Chicagoans failed to keep up with the company’s evolution toward a predominantly European aesthetic, culled from Vincent’s and Edgerton’s histories with Nederlands Dans Theater. Audience numbers had dropped off well before the pandemic, leaving some in the administration to question if they could continue to support a home season at the 1,500-seat Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
A cascade of additional challenges included several key staff turnovers. Executive director Jason Palmquist had left in 2017, replaced by ex-politico David McDermott. And when McDermott got his hands on the ledger, it was apparent that cuts were needed.
The company roster shrank, as did dancers’ contract lengths. In March 2020, the company’s affiliated Lou Conte Dance Studio closed. Perhaps the most symbolic loss was the sale of the company’s building at 1147 W. Jackson Blvd., its home since 1998.
“It needed $3 million in roof fixes alone,” says McDermott. “From an investment perspective, it didn’t make sense.”
Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell assumed leadership in 2021 at the height of the pandemic with her company in a beleaguered state. McDermott was on the selection committee. “She just got it,” he says. “She got Hubbard Street and she got Chicago—the richness and diversity of Chicagoland. It was clear to me that she was going to connect with Chicago and that the art she wanted to present was going to connect with Chicagoans.”
Fisher-Harrell was aware of the challenges. “This is the thing I was looking for, but I knew the state of affairs,” she says. “It felt like a reset, and I’m not afraid to create something out of nothing.”
As one of the few long-running repertory companies not named for its founder, Hubbard Street is in many ways unburdened by an obligation to honor Conte’s legacy. Still, Fisher-Harrell is committed to tapping into Hubbard Street’s roots. Conte, now age 81, is happy to be a mentor, but all parties are clear: Hubbard Street is Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell’s company.
“I care a lot about what happens, but I don’t have any control of it,” he says. “I told her to follow her own lead and do what she thinks is right. She has good instincts.”
A top priority for Fisher-Harrell was to turn her gaze westward and engage more American choreographers, particularly choreographers of color. “I’m building a repertoire,” she says. “There are things in the past that I want to revisit…like taking out your old albums. There are going to be those reaches back. But as I reach back, I still want to build.”
In two seasons, that catalog has included first-time commissions from in-vogue choreographers such as Amy Hall Garner, Hope Boykin, and Rennie Harris. Fisher-Harrell has also reengaged the company’s stake in Chicago, programming works by city natives Lar Lubovitch, Randy Duncan, Rena Butler, and Conte, who restaged his signature duet, Georgia, in May. And in rebuilding the dancer roster, now back to 14, Fisher-Harrell favored versatility—a necessity given the wide-ranging rep.
“I don’t want to turn my back on the European road,” she says. “All of the roads that were open to Hubbard Street, I feel like, are fair game.”
One of those roads was a relationship with Canadian American choreographer Aszure Barton, who set BUSK on the company in fall 2021. Barton will be Hubbard Street’s next choreographer in residence, beginning a three-year commitment this fall. Her residency looks like The Tharp Project: She will stage previous works on the company as well as make new ones.
When Barton last worked with Hubbard Street, the company was rehearsing in a temporary, out-of-the-way warehouse space near the expressway, adjacent to a loading dock. It now occupies a sparkly, retrofitted storefront (previously an Adidas store) at the Water Tower Place mall on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.
The new space is a vast improvement, but still a temporary solution. As the company rebuilds, a permanent home is part of Hubbard Street’s long-term planning, as is reopening a school. Fisher-Harrell also hopes to add more dancers; perhaps reinstate a second company, apprentices, and a trainee program, to create more pathways to professional performance opportunities for promising young dancers; and to protect company dancers from burnout.
All of that, she acknowledges, will take time.
“That’s dreaming big,” Fisher-Harrell says, “and I realize that we have to be fiscally responsible. I want us to approach [those dreams] the right way, so they last.”
Hubbard Street’s Next Generation
BFA in dance, Pace University
Joined Hubbard Street in 2021
“Everyone is really here for the vision of Linda. The way that she has been involving so many different aspects from the Chicago community—I’m like, ‘Wow, this place is so fruitful.’ ”
BFA in dance, The Juilliard School
Joined Hubbard Street in 2022
“Hubbard Street is not one thing at all. I think that’s what is unique. I’ve never seen or felt a company that is so comfortable going so many different directions at the same time.”
BFA in dance, SUNY Purchase
Joined Hubbard Street in 2022
“[Linda-Denise] always says, ‘The party’s on the marley.’ She always gives me a new mindset.”