Hubbard Street's 'In Any Event' blends naturalism and theatricality in multi-disciplinary storytelling

Penny Saunders, a former Hubbard Street dancer and choreographer in residence at Grand Rapids Ballet, makes a welcome return as choreographer and sound designer of “In Any Event,” a delightful and penetrating collage of dancers’ stories, orchestrated as monologues in overlapping, choreographed scenes. The new dance film is part of Hubbard Street’s virtual 43rd season.

Saunders and film co-director Bruno Roque grounded their cast of 10 in the corporate kitchen, dining room, chapel and airy meeting rooms of Walden Chicago Event Space. “It was a true collaboration,” Saunders said in her introduction to the March 25th broadcast, crediting the dancers with much of the creative process.

The stories that comprise “In Any Event” grew out of Saunders’ prompt to the dancers to talk about any events in their lives that came to mind. The music, Franz Schubert’s emotionally evocative “Trio in E-flat Major, Opus 100,” augmented by composer Michael Wall’s original composition, creates a sometimes ironic, sometimes lyrical counterpoint to their storytelling and Saunders’ striking choreographic design.

The initial conceit is that the dancers are getting ready to attend an event—a wedding—at the venue. The wedding couple is getting dressed. Waiters are preparing in the kitchen and wine cellar, tables are being set in the dining room, guests are beginning to arrive. There are balloons—it’s a party. There is entertainment, a dancer/singer in sparkly white pants and bustier rehearses her introduction: “Now that I have your attention…if you don’t get my dancing today, I hope you get my words…” There is a debate on gay marriage, a group discussion questioning of the point of any sort of marriage. The waiters dance a pas de deux in and out of the elevator and contemplate the meaning of their union. A man in blue velvet overalls and yellow socks dances the tragedy of a lost balloon.

Saunders’ movement is by turns abrupt, disjointed and verging on contortion in its wild range of opposite impulses, compelling bodies to the outer limits of extension. And then suddenly infusing them with the lyricism of spiral turns, gorgeous leaps and exquisite balances that hang on a breath. Wild dives to the floor, upside-down explorations of a wall, walking on hands and collapsing on the bar over cocktails take turns with the embrace of a slow dance on the dance floor at the wedding.

Fascinating in its variety of dynamics and elements of surprise, the abstract choreographic design somehow knits the emotional through-line of the storytelling with a logic all its own. The combination of dancing and storytelling pulls out whimsy and pathos, satire and desperation, playfulness and passion, all in service of a multi-layered look at the human experience of key events in our lives.

One of the most effective aspects of “In Any Event” is Saunders’ blend of highly stylized choreography and overall theatricality of the film’s concept with the non-theatrical environment of Walden Chicago Event Space. Her ever-changing and textured palette alternates moments of abstraction with documentary-style realism.

Complementing that concept, Jessica Tong’s chic costuming is attractive enough to add color and style to the whole look of the piece but maintains the impression of “real life” clothes culled from the dancers’ own closets—sport coats and slacks, high heels and party dresses, tuxedoes, dressy vests, sneakers and everyday comfort clothes.

The conceptual juggling act between theatricality and naturalism carries through in the candid, everyday tone of voice-overs and spoken dialogue in scenes, and in the Hubbard Street dancers’ searing range of casual virtuosity in their dancing.

What Saunders and her collaborators are able to accomplish in 30 compact minutes of film is a rich and thorough exploration of her quest — to examine the many different facets of life’s key events, from funerals to births and birthdays, engagements to weddings, homecomings and departures — that can be, according to Saunders, “complex collisions of viewpoint rather than the easy celebrations they appear to be.”

Figuring centrally in the overall artistic equation is a level of film editing by Roque that approximates choreography, as much in sync with the musical phrasing, tempos and rhythms of the music as with the dancers’ movement. “In Any Event” creates its own world of logic in the connectedness of seeming non-sequiturs.

The scenes converge upon each other, the stories repeatedly circling back to the central event of dancers David Schultz and Jacqueline Burnett’s courtship, engagement and wedding. Theirs is a compelling and tender tale that anchors “In Any Event” with a love story. And who doesn’t love a wedding? This is not to diminish the wonderful passion in the story of the two waiters, or the roller coaster ride of parenting in Andrew Murdock’s poignant monologue, or Alyssa Allen’s birthday bug transformation, birthday cake and blowing out the candles.

One of the more ingenious aspects of film technology is the ability to project multiple images of the same dancer in different costumes doing different choreography in the same frame, appearing as alter-egos or dopplegangers of each other. Roque uses this to great effect with David Shultz’s monologue, layering the story with visual subtext.

“In Any Event” is so rich in ideas and so spectacular in their physical realization, it’s hard to do it justice in this limited space. Saunders and Roque’s use of multiple disciplines to convey the specifics of these individual stories opens us up to their complexity and to the universality of human experience.

It’s great to see Hubbard Street thriving, growing and continuing to explore the art of the dance in a wider context of multi-disciplinary performance without losing its core strengths as a premiere dance company. Kudos to the entire artistic team!


"In Any Event" takes place Saturday and Sunday, streamed on Vimeo for free with reservation. Each showing includes a talk-back with the artists and members of the creative team. Following this weekend, the film will be viewable on Hubbard Street's website with the other dance films making up their wholly virtual season. For more information or to RSVP, visit the event page below.