Review: The future looks bright: Hubbard Street ends their 44th season on a high note


Hubbard Street Dance Chicago closes their 44th season at the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance with RE/UNION: Program B, the second half of their summer series featuring three celebrated works by choreographers Amy Hall Garner, Ohad Naharin and Aszure Barton, plus a world premiere by Spenser Theberge. Program A, presented on May 12 -13, featured only the work of Naharin, and as great as he is, I was glad to see a more diverse lineup in this program, one that really lets the company of dancers display their broad range of abilities—they are lovers, ghouls and occultists, leaves on the wind, pedestrians just trying to get through life. The high energy of the dancers was tempered by a solemn humanity and a deep introspectiveness underlying the body of each work.

The program opens with “As the Wind Blows,” a fast-paced, multidisciplinary piece by Amy Hall Garner which premiered as part of Hubbard Street’s RE/CONNECT series last fall. The style of dance shifts constantly, with long, legato, balletic extensions in the arms and legs suddenly breaking at the joints into geometrical abstractions, the fractal shapes of the dancers’ bodies giving an edge to the work’s otherwise dreamlike quality. The transition from one aesthetic to another is incredibly smooth and close attention is paid to the accompanying music. A purposefully uneven canon of lifts by three couples matches syncopated percussive accents. A dancer launches into a flat-footed slide that coincides with a sustained note played by a flute. Midway through the piece, dancer Michael Garcia appears as a Christ-like figure, arms at his sides, palms facing out. Then a sharp recoil, a contraction in the stomach, grabbing his head, forcing himself to look up, as if arguing with some unseen voice “No, I’m not the one!” The work defies labeling, showing, if one chooses to blend styles, how to do it right.

“George & Zalman,” a work by Naharin, originally created for the Batsheva Dance Company, features five dancers in black leotards as mannequins come to life and is set against a poem written by “laureate of American lowlife” Charles Bukowski, read by Bobbi Jene Smith with a musical arrangement by Arvo Pärt. The dancers closely follow the lyrical content—swatting at spiders, turning their backs at the hint of carnal desires, plunging into deep lunges with arms raised high to escape a supernatural inferno. The unique delivery of the poem adds another layer to the presentation. Each line of the poem—and corresponding movement—is given to the audience in piecemeal: at first a few words, then a few more, always restarting from the beginning, each new consequential lyric recontextualizing the feeling of its antecedent parts. One by one the dancers break out of their molds to deliver short solos filled equally with jovial scampering on forced-arch feet or disturbing and violent full-body shaking. In “George & Zalman,” Naharin’s able use of lyricism is skillfully communicated by the company of dancers’ expressive abilities.

“No Me Quitte Pas” is a world premiere by Spenser Theberge and features dancers Adam McGaw and Andrew Murdock in a love story. The piece gets its name from a song by Jacques Brel, performed by Nina Simone, which casually splashes over the dancers abruptly midway. Otherwise, the dancing is performed a cappella. The concept of “No Me Quitte Pas” sprung from a workshop conducted 10 years ago by Theberge. The process has one dancer using their own momentum to inspire the movement of the other, and then back again, in a perpetual cause-and-effect relationship. Against a bare, black, brick wall, McGaw and Murdock, wearing light, loose and layered clothing, emulate a conversation and speak through movement. One begins to sink to the ground, reaching towards a conclusion, only to be scooped up at the last second by the other, as if to say, “But have you considered this?” The action gains ferocity as, like billiard balls, McGaw runs and bumps into Murdock, causing him to spin out of control in the opposite direction, but then is grabbed at the elbow by McGaw who steals his momentum back, causing him to spin, then grabbed at the elbow by McGaw, and on and on. “No Me Quitte Pas” could be a snapshot of a lover’s weekend, or it could be a lifetime of moments softly stitched together—the universality of love in the work makes all narratives possible.

Closing the program is “Busk” by prolific choreographer Aszure Barton, whose eclectic style, mixed with the eerie costumes by Michelle Jank, claustrophobic lighting by Nicole Pearce and a wide variety of musical influences spanning the 19th and 20th centuries gives the piece a distinct horror movie vibe. Frightening, captivating and entertaining, “Busk” features the full company of dancers wearing ominous black cloaks with pointy hoods, their faces obscured by top-down lighting. From nothing, they appear out of the shadows and climb atop graduated steps. They form a ghastly and macabre choir, swaying back and forth, mouths wide open and eyes bulging, in a grotesque imitation of the heavenly harmonies produced by the accompanying chorale music. “Busk” is built around a series of recurring motifs, like the

company roving en masse in deep squats and with glowering expressions, or a series of head nods and audible sniffs, or a series of sharp jabs with the leg that transforms into a cocky walk. There is even a tap dance motif: a recurring “time step” is imposed, in soft shoes, amidst what sounds like bouncing ping pong balls—a similar motif was used by Justin Peck in his “The Times Are Racing,” set on The Joffrey Ballet, instead choosing “paradiddles” as his tap step of choice.

“Busk” is scary, creepy, at times uncomfortable, occasionally piquant. The fluid movements of the dancers combined with their uncanny ability to embody eerie archetypes cast a spell that was indeed mesmerizing.

By the end of the show, the audience was on their feet, signaling the closure of Hubbard Street’s 44th season as a resounding success. In a short speech at the beginning of the show, artistic director Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell expressed gratitude at the return to live theater and an optimism about the company’s upcoming 45th anniversary season. “The Sapphire Season,” said Fisher-Harrell through a broad smile, “Doesn’t that sound good?” After getting a glimpse of the end of season 44, I would say that it not only sounds good, but will look good as well.