The past few seasons revealed cracks at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, an extraordinary dance company that, until recently, seemed untouchable. One could perhaps start the narrative in 2016, when a flood damaged the company’s studios at 1147 W. Jackson—hallowed grounds for generations of Chicago dancers.
Despite raising more than $30,000, certain repairs went undone. A year later, executive director Jason Palmquist left after a decade with the organization, which ushered in a different kind of flood: a revolving door of frequent staff changes and erratic box office numbers at the Harris Theater, where they’d eventually cut to fewer than 10 home performances per season.
The quality of the dancing never wavered, even as the company was bleeding money, and these past four years have only solidified Hubbard Street’s niche as Chicago’s premier contemporary dance company.
But even with some of the most artistically satisfying programming in this writer’s recent memory—“The Art of Falling,” “DecaDance/Chicago,” a 40th anniversary compilation of “best of” repertoire from each decade of operation, and entire evenings dedicated to Crystal Pite, William Forsythe and choreographer-in-residence Alejandro Cerrudo, as a few examples—there were signs of difficulty.
Cerrudo left. Hubbard Street 2, a contract-based training company which acted as a feeder for the main company, was disbanded while a revenue-building pre-professional program called HS Pro was put in. Contracts were shortened and tour dates reduced. And this spring, a wave of shocking announcements: The Hubbard Street Dance Center was sold to a condo developer. Alexandra Wells, who was brought in two years ago to develop HS Pro, took a job in New York, effective July 1. And artistic director Glenn Edgerton is stepping down after more than a decade at the helm.
And then a global pandemic happened, forcing the company to turn around and come home a day after landing in Italy for a four-city tour. Home engagements in March and May were cancelled as the novel coronavirus made its way to Chicago. And a recent announcement signaled the heartbreaking end of the Lou Conte Dance Studio, the eponymous training facility formed by the man who started it all.
Some might throw up their hands and go home. What does Hubbard Street do? Pivot.
From May 23 through June 5, the company is leaning in to social dis-dancing (and, thankfully, not calling it that) for a two-week season finale called Hubbard Street: Unbound. Anchoring the virtual festival are three performative events: a reimagined version of Peter Chu’s “Space, In Perspective;” a new edition of Robyn Mineko Williams’ excellent pop-up series called “Undercover Episodes;” and an online version of the annual dancer-choreographed showcase of new works called “Inside/Out.”
Chu premiered “Space, In Perspective” in 2017, which unleashed viewers from their plush seats to roam the hallways, stairwells and little-seen backstage areas of the Harris Theater. A revamped version for the proscenium stage was scheduled for May 14-17 (along with a world premiere from Mineko Williams). Chu had already begun working on the new iteration when government mandates dictated a cascade of cancellations.
Ironically, remapping “Space, In Perspective” (again) for a video conferencing platform perhaps resembles the original production more than it would have, had we seen what Chu was working on in March. The roaming performance required an adventurous spirit from the audience and, occasionally, was riddled with frustration (like when I got stuck going against the flow of traffic in a tight stairwell and arrived at two locations only to find that those segments had already ended). Who among us hasn’t experienced a similar kind of awkwardness in Zoom meetings?
Certain elements may be recognizable to those who experienced the original “Space, In Perspective,” but this “virtual sharing,” as Chu describes it, is not a performance.
“I had just wrapped my head around the stage experience,” he said from his home in Las Vegas. Initially, Chu hesitated on continuing the project online. Once he agreed, it was important to allow space for the dancers to grieve about the pandemic and all the loss they’d experienced. “I knew immediately that I was going to take the responsibility to provide a process with time, space and especially breath at the forefront of our virtual studio. It was an opportunity for me to help heal with the organization. I knew that this was going to be a therapeutic process for all of us. It was my opportunity to help guide them to calmly connect with each other, and our community, especially during the atypical times we’re experiencing.”
Chu anchored each rehearsal with an hour of qigong, a traditional Chinese practice incorporating mindfulness, body postures and meditation. For the public-facing experience on Saturday, viewers can navigate from the main Zoom room, where they’ll see the company dancing in their homes, to break-out rooms (orchestrated by Chu and Hubbard Street rehearsal director Jonathan Alsberry) for guided breathing, conversation and participatory movement exercises. Audience members can feel free to come and go as they please, turn their cameras on or off, or simply sit back, relax, and SIP—an acronym of “Space, In Perspective”—on a beverage of their choice.
“I really want to connect the community, and for them to actually move with us as dancers," Chu said. "I understand people don’t want to move. I want to have a peaceful and playful journey that helps evoke spatial perception and explore what space means to them. If you have limitations, just breathe with us, sip on something and enjoy the experience. That’s what ‘Space, In Perspective’ was always about.”
The early evening event is punctuated by a combination of pre-recorded music—from the original score by Djeff Houle—and live performance by musically-inclined company dancer David Schultz on piano and his father, Steve, on saxophone. Schultz is currently sheltering in place at his parents’ home in Grand Rapids, along with two other Hubbard Street dancers: Jacqueline Burnett (Schultz and Burnett are married) and Kellie Epperheimer.
It’s not exactly how Epperheimer envisioned the end of her 15-year career with Hubbard Street, but the 36-year-old California native is set to retire at the end of the season.
“This organization has been a dream of mine since I was young,” Epperheimer said in a phone call. After watching a Hubbard Street performance as a teenager, she felt like she had found her calling. After two seasons in Hubbard Street 2 under the direction of Julie Nakagawa—a master teacher with a knack for readying dancers for grueling professional careers—Epperheimer joined the main company in 2007, and has been there ever since.
“My whole time [at Hubbard Street] has been so inspiring. I never stopped learning in the artform, but also as a person,” said Epperheimer. “Every person that has come in and out—all the dancers, all of those influences—it kept being an environment in which I felt like could thrive and struggle, and still feel supported.”
Eppenheimer’s career highlights include performing the works of Jiří Kylián, Ohad Naharin, Mats Ek and Crystal Pite, made possible, in large part, by the curatorial visions of Jim Vincent and Glenn Edgerton. After more than 10 years, Edgerton ends his tenure as artistic director in July. (He will remain as artistic advisor until the end of the year.)
Though generally consistent in his aesthetic, Edgerton has not been wholly predictable—or risk averse. It is perhaps a testament to his curiosity and curatorial courage that Hubbard Street ends its season with new content, when it would have been easier to stream existing material (an approach many other companies took).
“The sense of exploration is paramount and necessary, and will always be, I hope, what Hubbard Street focuses on,” said Edgerton by phone. “That includes bringing up the next generation, and giving opportunities to a new choreographer that needs to hone their craft. The only way to become a choreographer is to experiment, and try to tap into a nuance that speaks to an audience and touches them in a way that, hopefully, is profound.
“I think those initiatives are important for growth. They’re important for the company’s growth and the growth of the artform. If you only present a work that you know is going to be a blockbuster hit, then you’re just presenting something that can be in a museum. You need to break [programming] up to where it has a challenge to it, where you're bringing your dancers and audience into unknown territory. That’s certainly what we’re doing now with the virtual experience.”
Edgerton and Epperheimer don’t have specific plans about what they’ll do after leaving Hubbard Street. Entering the job market in the midst of a global health crisis presents an obvious challenge, but both expressed a feeling of excitement and optimism about exploring whatever comes next. They’ll do what they’ve always done: adapt, explore and pivot.
Hubbard Street Unbound: A Virtual Season Finale takes place May 23-June 5. “Space, In Perspective: A Virtual Sharing Experience” will be live 4 p.m. Saturday, on Zoom. “Undercover Episode 018: Home Video” launched on Vimeo May 29, and the festival concludes with “(Stay)Inside/Out” Friday, June 5. In addition, new content will be available every day, with videos created by company members, the tech crew and the education department. All events are free accessible through Hubbard Street’s website and social media channels. More information is available by clicking on the event pages below, and at www.hubbardstreetdance.com.