Hubbard Street Dance Chicago: The Heat is On

July 24, 2007
For Cheryl Mann, it was a typical night of performing with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Things got off to a rousing start with Daniel Ezralow’s
, a burst of perpetual motion and tricky counterpoint set to a jazzy Leonard Bernstein score. Then came the world premiere of Lar Lubovitch’s Love Stories, in which Mann had a searingly sexy duet—all body heat and spectacular lifts. After intermission, she launched into yet another taxing work that required a totally different approach—Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s emotionally imploding Tabula Rasa. In the final work, counter/part, she was performing the sometimes breakneck choreography of her boss, Jim Vincent, artistic director of HSDC.
“I’ve danced programs like that many times,” says Mann, laughing, but clearly remembering the exhaustion she felt after HSDC’s three-week spring season at the Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance, its home base in the city’s new high-profile Millennium Park. “But it also sometimes works out that I only dance one or two pieces the next night,” she says.
Yet it is that extraordinary stamina, and that ability to shift quickly and convincingly from style to style, that has become the trademark of Hubbard Street’s dancers.
For the better part of two decades, the company, now in its 28th year, has undergone a carefully calibrated artistic evolution that has caught the attention of dancers, choreographers, audiences, and presenters. What began in the 1970s as founder Lou Conte’s jazzy little troupe of performers with impeccable technique and memorable stage personalities has morphed into a company of 22 artists, whose roots suggest a veritable United Nations. Along the way, HSDC has amassed a repertoire of acknowledged masterpieces as well as new works by internationally known contemporary choreographers.
During the marathon season just described, the company also premiered a work by Nacho Duato, and a highly theatrical duet by the company’s artistic associate Lucas Crandall (
, in which Mann and her partner Tobin Del Cuore were sensational). At the same time, HSDC became one of only two American companies to dance William Forsythe’s fiercely challenging Enemy in the Figure. Naharin gave HSDC Tabula Rasa after the troupe enjoyed a tremendous earlier success with Minus 16—for several seasons its signature work. Diphthong, by company member Brain Enos and Rooster, by British choreographer Christopher Bruce and set to Rolling Stones hits, filled out the recent programming mix.
Eclectic? You bet. But there is a method to the madness.
“It’s about percentages,” says Vincent, the New Jersey-born dancer who spent 12 years with Jirí Kylián’s Nederlands Dans Theater and 2 with Duato’s Compania Nacional de Danza of Spain. “We need to build up enough new repertoire so that we can tour nationally with as little repetition as possible. And if we want to expand our touring in Europe, we can’t take pieces by Jirí [Kylián], or Nacho [Duato], or Ohad [Naharin], because too many companies there already perform them.”
When Vincent first arrived at Hubbard Street in 2000, the company was adding two or three new works to its rep each year. Now it is up to about six pieces a year. “And that has inspired new interest in the company,” Vincent says. “We have a lot more to offer presenters. We do between 75 and 90 performances a season.” The company is one of the few in which dancers have a 52-week contract with paid vacation and benefits.
“I had to justify the interest and cost of incorporating more new works by getting more bookings,” says Vincent. “The one feeds the other. And to keep wonderful dancers interested in the company you have to nourish them and expose them to challenging choreographers.” He is also working with younger choreographers like the Bay Area’s Alex Ketley and Ireland’s Marguerite Donlon.
But learning all this new work can be grueling. And rarely was it more so than this past year, when seven dancers left the company. Two moved on to join the national tour of Twyla Tharp’s
Movin’ Out
, (in the 1990s Tharp partnered with Hubbard Street and oversaw their performance of some of her major pieces). Others moved on to work freelance, or to choreograph full-time, or to return to school.
Vincent replaced these dancers with the gifted Juilliard grad Isaac Spencer, a couple from England’s Rambert Dance Company, two dancers who returned to the company after working elsewhere, and a dancer from MOMIX and Cedar Lake Ensemble. Several other dancers—drawn from San Francisco Ballet and European companies like Nederlands Dans Theater—have joined Hubbard Street in the interim.
“The workload is pretty intense,” confesses Mann, who after eight years in the company is considered the “most valuable player.” She learned five new pieces in about five weeks for last spring’s season. “Your brain does reach the frying point,” she says. “It’s hardest when a piece is being created on you, because until you have the final version you might have 15 different versions racing through your head. Remembering the changes and adapting to them can be very tricky.” To survive, she says, the dancers must be very aware of their energy level, pace themselves carefully, and stay healthy—“because one missing body can cause a lot of chaos.”
Looking back on the demands of the past season, Mann says, “I don’t know how we did it because each new piece involved such a completely different way of thinking. And at Hubbard Street you have to learn things very fast. But I think we’re all hungry to do that, and to get more new work. And the more we get, the more we can take on. Things might have been more highly polished when we had a smaller rep, but I think we dance with more of an edge now—with a rawness and excitement that keeps us very aware.”
A strong ballet base is now a must for the company’s dancers. But just as important, says Mann, is “having a hot spot in your stomach—a strength that can reach down into your legs. You also need to be able to improvise and not be afraid of making a fool of yourself in front of a choreographer.”
That freedom and responsiveness certainly impressed Lubovitch. “I generally create a new work on my own company first,” says the choreographer. “But with
Love Stories
I went straight to the Hubbard Street dancers.”
Tobin Del Cuore, who was prominently featured in the Lubovitch work, joined Hubbard Street in 2003 after a stint with the second company, Hubbard Street 2 (see sidebar). When asked to list the greatest attraction of the troupe, he replies, “We may just have the best rep in the country. And we get to travel a lot, both domestically and, increasingly, in Europe.” But Del Cuore sees the downside too. “At times it is possible to feel as if you are part of a well-running machine,” he confesses. “And being a necessary wheel in it can be a good feeling. But it also can take a lot out of you.”
Del Cuore has especially strong praise for the company’s Choreographic Workshop—one of Vincent’s initiatives that is an annual event. The workshop sets aside time and money specifically for the dancers to choreograph, work with film, design lighting, or—as Cheryl Mann does—experiment with photography. 
Another of Vincent’s initiatives is to see to it that more performances have at least an element of live music. Ezralow’s
debuted in 2004 as part of a collaboration between Hubbard Street and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and its performance at the CSO’s Symphony Center clearly tapped into new “crossover” audiences for both organizations. The project will continue this year with an all-Mozart program planned for December.
Lou Conte, who has kept a gentlemanly distance from the company since ceding control to Vincent, came to see all the programs presented during HSDC’s Chicago season this spring. “I’m crazy about the way it looks now,” he says. “I’m really very proud of it. And Jim works his dancers very hard—much harder than I did. But I was accused of babying them.”
Cheryl Mann will be the first to testify.
Hedy Weiss is theater and dance critic for the
Chicago Sun-Times and a contributing editor at Dance Magazine.