In Dance(e)volve, Hubbard Street stretches creative muscles

Process sets the tone for Hubbard Street’s Danc(e)volve New Works Festival (Museum of Contemporary Art, May 10-14). Four Chicago-based choreographers, three of them current or former HSD dancers, stretch their creative muscles on their colleagues in a program that taps many moods, from playful to poetic, detached to deeply connected. In all four works, the closeness of these dancers to their process and to each other radiates across the footlights of the intimate MCA theater. 

Hubbard Street dancer Penny Saunders’  poetic “Berceuse,” first performed in 2011 as part of HSD’s  annual “Inside/Out” choreographic workshop, has evolved into a gem of a duet, poignantly danced  Wednesday by Jaqueline Burnett and David Schultz. Movement flowed between them in a lyrical exchange of swinging arms and breathy leaps to orchestral excerpts from French composer Benjamin Godard’s opera “Jocelyn” (1888). Saunders captures the drama of their relationship in coupling that alternately reaches away and embraces, with both free-flowing unison movement and sensitive partnering. Julie Ballard’s lighting effectively defines their individuality, spatially isolating Schultz’s dance monologue in a pool of light, with Burnett watching him on the edge of its spill before they reunite in a lovely finish. 

HSD dancer Alice Klock’s  “Clan(device),” originally premiered in Germany by members of Hubbard Street 2 in 2016, has evolved on the main company as an essentially new work for these performances. Deep freeze sounds of arctic breath set the five dancers in motion, caught between Ballard’s dramatic cross-beams of diagonally vertical light. One man’s slow, detached pacing along the stage periphery surrounds a central force-field of intensity, the four other dancers handing each other off with flips and group torso wraps. Relationship is at the core of this abstract work, with various duets, trios, and ensemble sequences. Frantic group running yields to a riveting duet, performed by Emilie Leriche and Andrew Murdock. Leriche is compelling in desperate solo moves, whispered incantations igniting extremes in whole-group energy. 

Former HSD dancer Robyn Mineko Williams’  visually stunning premiere, “Cloudline” begins in a group breath, the seven dancers floating a full-stage expanse of gray parachute silk into a billowy cloud overhead, launching a dark tango to Jherek Biscoff’s cockeyed Latin beat. Williams mines the sinister undertone of the music with aggressive partner dancing that shifts direction with knife-edge malevolence, deliciously aligned to the musical phrasing. The push-pull of interactions excites a rush of running, the arresting touch of a hand on a back interrupting its urgency. Arm gestures sculpt each other into ever-changing shapes and movement trajectories.  Songs accompany a catalogue of solos and duets, the danced relationships deliberately illustrative of the lyrics, as in “When the one you love is gone,” culminating in a magnificent duet for Jessica Tong and Andrew Murdock. Thematic slow walking punctuates these episodes, sometimes so slowly as to overstate the pain of isolation, deterring structural cohesiveness. I’m not quite sure how the whole justifies the sum of its parts, but Williams quickly rescues choreographic momentum with a finale so surprising, and so magically transforming, it could be the basis for an entire ballet all its own. Retrieving the crumpled parachute silk that has lain dormant at the back of the stage, the dancers’ movement of the fabric creates an ocean of waves, ripples, and swells through which they dance, swim, disappear, reappear, drown, and survive. Williams’ inspired ending, with the ensemble reducing the ocean to a trickle of fabric trailing offstage, leaves one woman alone on stage. The fabric, while wonderful, is a puzzle that disappears too soon, and doesn’t come back until the end, leaving one to wonder how it is meant to serve the piece, and how else it might be incorporated to connect its disparate segments.

Improvisation is the basis for Julia Rhoads’ “Cadence,” her first endeavor with Hubbard Street and created for this event. Capitalizing on a creative process that has had striking success with Lucky Plush Productions, of which Rhoads is founding artistic director, “Cadence” employs a casual movement lexicon in a quest for whatever might happen next. The climate is anything goes, and everything is cool, perhaps more fun for the dancers than the audience. Rhoads launches one nascent choreographic idea after the next, the most consistent being the dancers’ humorous use of casual dialogue and singing, but they all seem to devolve before they ever reach a promised pay-off worthy of choreographic interest.  Group problem-solving drives activities—a group chair where the last person has no-one to sit on; hand-stands, head-stands; a tai chi sequence in slow-mo; rhythmic vocal aspirations and whispering secrets—it all amounts to a hodgepodge that makes limited use of these dancers’ fabulously versatile instruments and artistic resources. Rhoads’ success with Lucky Plush hinges on the interplay of story, scripted dialogue, music, visual design, and movement invention in highly structured scenarios. Tapping the unique resources of another performing ensemble takes time to evolve, which may have been in short supply for this first foray with Hubbard Street.