Hubbard Street Dance Chicago & Alonzo King LINES Ballet
By Laura Molzahn
Civic pride made me think, What can another troupe really teach Hubbard Street? But I found myself astounded by the dancers of San Francisco-based LINES Ballet, especially in Alonzo King's Rasa (2007), making its Chicago premiere on a program the two companies are sharing here this weekend.
A little backstory: the troupes have been collaborating for a couple of years. HSDC acquired King's Following the Subtle Current Upstream three years ago, and in 2011 a Joyce Fellowship allowed for shared performances --- including one new work by King danced by both companies --- in four cities. That series opened in Berkeley last month; the second city (as usual, I guess) is Chicago, in a program running through Sunday at the Harris Theater.
As Rasa shows beyond any doubt, the LINES dancers are superheroes, super-sized, supernatural. They're taut, erect; they're not on point, but in general they tower. Except when they don't. They're expert too at moves low to the ground: deep lunges, perilously wide-legged relevés, sudden drops from the waist that never seem to challenge the dancer's balance. And that's not to mention the way they make their bones disappear. In Rasa, they transform their arms --- from the tops of their shoulders to the tips of their fingers --- into ribbons, which they recklessly flash around themselves. Until King's demanding choreography requires them to regain control. Or maybe they had it all along.
Music by Grammy-nominated tabla player Zakir Hussain, recorded with violinist Kala Ramnath, knits the nine sections of Rasa together. Most are for King's ensemble of 12; the last three sections, all for the ensemble, build to a super-sized crescendo that ends suddenly, seemingly from exhaustion. Early sections are more emotionally nuanced. The second focuses on a slippery high-maintenance goddess (danced by the amazing Kara Wilkes) who seems to need yet reject constant support from three followers. The fourth, a duet, is similarly conflicted; Caroline Rocher and David Harvey embody a dysfunctional relationship as they take turns manipulating and supporting each other, often in close, even clotted partnering. It's a welcome shift from the super-sized.
I have to admit, I have a weakness for weakness. Superheroes can get old; regular old human beings have the potential for immensely more emotion. The next piece on the program --- Little Mortal Jump (2012), by HSDC resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo --- gained new resonance by contrast with Rasa. Cerrudo created a score out of snippets from wide-ranging artists: Beirut, Andrew Bird, film composer Alexandre Desplat, Philip Glass, Tom Waits. The result is a huge musical palette, ranging from what sounds like a village orchestra warming up (accordion, off-key horns) to the background tune for some kind of apocalypse.
Early sections of Little Mortal Jump are humorous. Leaping off precipices is a theme. So is shedding the constraints of "flight" (ha, like human beings can fly) in order to get closer to one another. Then the mood shifts more thoroughly. A final duet (poignantly danced by Jesse Bechard and Ana Lopez on opening night) begins with variations on harmony but proceeds to a tender, confounding section in which the man holds the woman back and she looks, agonized, behind herself. What is she seeing, what does she want to return to? There's no answer, but their world literally explodes. We jump into love, jump into death. We are not superheroes.
It couldn't have been an easy task for King to create AZIMUTH (2013), a work for the 12 LINES dancers and 15 from Hubbard Street. Crowd control alone would be daunting, much less navigating the skill sets of both troupes. Overall, the HSDC dancers are smaller and more malleable than those in LINES. They're exquisitely trained to interpret a vast range of choreography, while King's dancers are handpicked and groomed to perform his neo-balletic pieces.
I have to call the 40-minute result less than satisfying. Part of the problem was its arrival at the end of a long program --- AZIMUTH exhausts the attention. Another was Ben Juodvalkis's score, an eclectic pastiche of styles that, unlike Cerrudo's for Little Mortal Jump, didn't seem to have any vector. King had modified his style, perhaps to accommodate the HSDC dancers, who did well with his Byzantine isolations, especially Kellie Epperheimer and Jacqueline Burnett. But he kept a grandiose vision for the piece, the main exception being a duet whose emotional tone, if not its movements, echoed that of the duet in Rasa.
Interesting: while the Ailey company (also in town now) has branched out to include more works in the European vein, Hubbard Street, whose repertory is largely European, is embracing choreography by an African-American. It's all good, even if AZIMUTH is something of a failed experiment. Who knows the beneficial effects King's movement might have on HSDC down the line? And vice versa?
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, "One Thousand Pieces"
By Laura Molzahn
With his gift for both the panoramic and the humble, choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo is well suited to interpret Marc Chagall’s stained-glass “America Windows” at the Art Institute of Chicago. Both the windows and Cerrudo’s dance, “One Thousand Pieces,” are monumental mosaics built from depictions of individual human actions and interactions.
And both the “America Windows” and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago are 35 years old. You can catch the birthday party through Sunday at the Harris Theater --- and a party it is, or at least was on opening night, Thursday. Cerrudo’s “One Thousand Pieces” is his, and Hubbard Street’s, first full-evening piece of choreography: three acts, with an intermission between the second and third. At times, this piece fills the stage with 24 dancers, everyone from the main company and most of Hubbard Street 2.
That inclusiveness marked the whole evening. And the sense of magic that permeates Chagall’s art --- the sense that no person or thing is bound by the ordinary laws of physics (houses float, cows float, people float) --- marked Cerrudo’s transformative choreography and the dancers’ organic, swirling performances. Thanks in part to a score that consists entirely of Philip Glass recordings, everything in the fluid, slippery “One Thousand Pieces” suggests the liquidity of glass and light so crucial to Chagall’s stained-glass work.
There’s even actual water in German designer Thomas Mika’s set, whose gigantic elements change for each act and within the acts. Mika contributes movable mirrored panels on the floor, floating mirrored panels that send light out into the audience (as Chagall’s glass windows do into their darkened hallway), a mirrored Marley floor that makes puddles look like pooled diamonds; Big Shoulders Productions contributes waterfalls of fog. Mika’s costumes are in blue, reflecting the dominant color of Chagall’s stained glass, and black, suggesting the leading between the panes. Michael Korsch’s lighting brings out all the reflective possibilities of Mika’s panels and sometimes washes the stage in Chagall’s spiritual white clouds or the warm golden hues of flesh and menorah.
As happens often in Cerrudo’s work, the design is huge, and hugely important. Here the emphasis is on mirroring and shadows, on the amplification and echoing of the human form. That’s especially significant in the first act, splintered by the higgledy-piggledy panels on the floor, the dancers’ many entrances and exits, and a mix of disparate, frequently shifting Glass compositions. There’s a slightly disagreeable impression of bustle, perhaps of urban haste and competition. Open mouths moving wordlessly suggest wanting, and failing, to be heard or fed. The stage area is tightly constricted, even oppressed, by darkness overhead and at the rear of the stage; dancers emerge only to be sucked or dragged back into it. But dancing and set alike explode and re-form at the end of Part 1.
The second section takes us to a completely different place. A representative of Chagall’s many flying lovers (Jonathan Frederickson) tells us that we’re headed into the night, a place of “peace and tranquility,” and into a love story, perhaps suggested by Chagall’s lifelong passion for his wife, Bella. Act two essentially interrupts the action of acts one and three; the most magical of the triptych, it consists of two simultaneous duets, then a series of interactions between five other dancers, three women and two men. Though the performers still emerge from and retreat into darkness, the feeling is less ominous; they’ve been retrieved from civilization and are immersed in the natural world and in imagination.
Though act three again consists of the full ensemble, Cerrudo never abandons --- in fact, he celebrates --- the love duet. Meanwhile restrained, minimal ensemble sections celebrate community; the world of the circus (which Chagall loved and represented often), suggested by Frederickson’s splashy “ringmaster” speech (taken from Glass’s opera “Einstein on the Beach”), returns in theatrically lit solos, duets, and cascading group sections. But, overall, Cerrudo defies expectation by getting smaller instead of bigger. The tiniest, tenderest touches in “One Thousand Pieces” come near the end, in a hand placed protectively at a woman’s back, a long look between two partners, a lengthy but simple revolving embrace. Two couples, Ana Lopez with Garrett Anderson and Jessica Tong with Pablo Piantino, movingly interpret these simple gestures.
I for one was happy to see these human touches, so suggestive of Cerrudo’s first work for HSDC, “Lickety-Split.” Though “One Thousand Pieces” does, miraculously, suggest worlds within worlds, suggest the dreaming multiplications of an old man’s fancy (Chagall was 90 in 1977), the dancing is sometimes overwhelmed by the design. That’s natural, of course, given the scope of Cerrudo’s task: to create a full-length work for the whole company commemorating twin big-time anniversaries. No pressure there.
Even more significant, the choice of Chagall --- perhaps the cheeriest of 20th-century artists --- might have restricted Cerrudo’s emotional palette. There’s little of the singed darkness or loss, for example, of his “Malditos” or “First Light.” There couldn’t be, given the subject. Nevertheless, I missed seeing, in the choreography rather than the design, the shadows, the chiaroscuro of conflict and pain, that make the blinding light of joy stand out.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago "Spring Series"
You can talk about brilliance and daring and fabulous dancing. But the bottom line is whether a dance takes us to a new and magical world --- and whether it's a world we want to visit.
Alejandro Cerrudo takes us there, however mysterious his "there" is, in the new "Little Mortal Jump." It's the pumping heart (and the only premiere) of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's spring series, running through Sunday at the Harris. In fact, "brilliant and daring and fabulous" pretty much defines the program one way or another. But the world that's already calling me back is Cerrudo's.
HSDC's resident choreographer since 2009, Cerrudo really comes into his own in the highly complex, chameleonic "Little Mortal Jump." That's despite, or perhaps because of, the way he mines his own previous work in this half-hour dance for ten. Largely devoted to the interactions of four couples, it looks at first like Cerrudo's 2006 "Lickety-Split" (and borrows a trick or two from Johan Inger's "Walking Mad"). Whimsical music even suggests the avant-folk Devendra Banhart score for "Lickety-Split."
The first couple's springy, unpredictable, lightning-fast doings are played for laughs. Jessica Tong and Pablo Piantino bounce at each other, feint and retreat, attempt to lasso their partner with circled arms. It's like watching Tigger court Roo. The second couple, who seem even younger, are also funny. Using a little stage sleight-of-hand and some Velcro (recalling Ashley Roland's "Captain Tenacity"), Kevin Shannon and Alice Klock discard their husks and step, shining new, into a shiny new love.
The grab-ass aspect of "Little Mortal Jump" disappears, however, with a transitional ensemble sequence that dissolves all individual quirks in a universal vision of being knocked off center. The off-kilter theme continues in the third duet, played straight and danced tenderly by Garrett Anderson and Penny Saunders. And in the fourth duet, the interplay between Ana Lopez and Jesse Bechard achieves a mythic resonance. A deep and inexplicable union replaces petty romantic preoccupations.
How does Cerrudo go from the silly to the transcendent in "Little Mortal Jump?" A similar chasm in his duet "Never Was," which debuted just two months ago, also enhances rather than weakens the dance. In both cases, carefully chosen but jaggedly pasted-together musical selections help create the schism --- and bridge it. So do the set pieces Cerrudo designed for "Little Mortal Jump": very quotidian dark, sturdy cubes on wheels magically reconfigure the space in seconds, with help from Michael Korsch's lighting. Like Cerrudo's earlier "Extremely Close" and "Off Screen," this piece seems inspired by, and aspires to, the swift facility and lush effects of cinema, which swell the heart and transport the mind.
By comparison to Cerrudo's quicksilver world, Alonzo King's in "Following the Subtle Current Upstream" is a stodgy old tourist trap. Created in 2000 for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, it looked old-fashioned even back when I first saw it, in 2001. The Hubbard Street dancers, who gave the piece its company premiere last year, now do it so well that they made me see its good points: the extremely subtle articulations, right down to the tips of the fingers, the nuances of the torso. The piece really takes off in the speedy final section, set to Zakir Hussain's tabla music. But the "sexy" duet is lurid, given the woman's seriously splayed legs. And somehow trips like King's to the "primitive" and "elemental" now seem Disney-esque.
Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar's "Too Beaucoup," commissioned by Hubbard Street and first performed a year ago, makes me laugh a little --- though the dancers never crack a smile. Watching it is like being dropped into a life-size video game peopled by 16 fierce, scary, humorless virtual beings with identical white hair --- punky for the boys, bobbed for the girls --- and colorless eyes (thanks to contact lenses). Or we might be at some Platonic ideal of a dance club, the diabolical conception of a choreographer asking, "What would it look like if club dancers moved in perfect unison, or perfect canon, to the virtually indistinguishable phrases of techno music?"
But it becomes more than that. DJ Ori Lichtik's varied mix includes not only 80s punk but jazz and Leonard Cohen. And eventually the dancers are not interchangeable, and the effect is not comic or slick. In yet another transformation, the robot becomes human, the crowd becomes the individual, anonymity becomes anomie.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
By Sid Smith:
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's relationship with hotshot Jorma Elo pays off nicely with an original work created for the company, a piece sporting the pun-tinged title "Bitter Suite," unveiled during the company's engagement that ended Sunday at the Harris Theater.
"Bitter" isn't, as it happens, an adjective that comes much to mind in this unusual, richly gestured work. Much of the time, the hands are as important here as the feet. The odd, perplexing mini-drama taking place among the eight dancers is often signaled by repeated flutters and jitters of their hands. A dancer begins the piece by igniting the choral tableau with barely perceptible hand signals, and thereafter follows frenetic, Keystone Kops interaction, bodies bouncing up and down, frantic graspings as if at invisible bugs, and all manner of strange interactions and sequences.
Interspersed with all this, and gradually taking over, are flowing moves of more classical dance, lifts, though here and there with a twist, for instance, but fast-moving and lyrical dance that is one reason Elo has been getting so much attention. A lot of this, however eccentric, is beautiful.
On a more basic level, "Bitter Suite" reveals Elo to be the musical maestro most choreographers in the end aim to be. Besides some music by Claudio Monteverdi, two crucial segments are set to Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, one of the great works of Western art. Not Beethoven's ninth symphony, maybe, but right up there, as melodic and exciting as it is a bear for any violinist taking it on. Significantly, Elo all but ignores its actual concerto form, in that only now and then does a single dancer represent or articulate the violin solos by him or herself. Elo instead employs the wondrously gorgeous music for a feast of choral dances, breathless ensemble work, some of it loving, some of it singular and startling, moving towards the music's galvanizing finish as if to a typical finale.
But then he doesn't end. He instead returns to a more mournful score and a kind of elegiac finish, a reprise of the cluttered chorale image of the opening, segueing to a haunting romantic embrace--perhaps one laced with that elusive bitterness of the title--for his ending. This all flirts with the essence of dance--movement that creates its own universe and touches us transcendently in ways that defy words or language.
It's not a perfect work and may well be revised. I overhead someone in the know suggesting he'd already made trims between Thursday's opening and Sunday's matinee, when I caught up with the piece at the Harris. But Hubbard has a nice, new solid showpiece for its arsenal, one it can proudly boast it launched, and Elo demonstrates again, with his relentless exploration of hands and arms and his sometimes intriguing originality with choral arrangement, that he is a choreographer hell-bent on looking different, on creating choreography that's unique and distinctive.
This engagement was a glowing and pleasing one all around. Alejandro Cerrudo's "Lickety-Split" always impresses with its speed and imagination. This time I noticed how beautiful and sweet it can be. No wonder so many of us took notice when he premiered it as his first work for the troupe--this is clearly something much richer than a dancer simply trying his hand at dance making. Sunday, it also gave Kevin Shannon, in key solos, his best moments since Doug Varone used him so smartly. He's not so much a showy dancer limned with spark, a la former Hubbard Streeter Jamy Meek. But he's an ineffably smooth and articulate one, a dancer who commands attention without a hint of look-at-me overkill. He anchored the troupe in a work that, no matter how often it's viewed, always delights, always seduces and always works, and can now be remembered as the one that launched the career of the troupe's first official resident choreographer.
Lucas Crandall's "The Set" is another Hubbard-grown work that's showing remarkable resilience, remarkable in that it's a comedy, and humor often fades quickly in dance. Once you know the gag, you lose interest. Here the comedy stems from a goofball Edwardian menage a trois made up of a man, a woman and a man in drag. What impressed me this third time around is the subtlety, shrewdness and craft Crandall manages in the choreography itself--kicky riffs on ballet, ballroom and general movement that energize the humor, just as the humor almost naturally leads to the dance. That nifty synthesis is what makes "The Set" a true tour de force, recalling the heydays of Pilobolus, the Trocks or even Lotte Goslar. These are laughs unique to dance, from the way she kisses a hand and wipes it on the clothing of another to the silky way a swinging leg leads to comic disaster.
"Jardi Tancat" (Penny Saunders, among a solid ensemble, riveted my attention yet again) remains one of the best works from Europe the troupe has acquired, unimpeachable evidence of the power and majesty of Nacho Duato. Please, Hubbard, if possible, bring us more of his work.