Thrilling Edginess, A Staged Murder, and Code-Switching Rap in Hubbard Street's "Forge Forward"

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago opens its 42nd season at the Harris Theater, November 7, 9 and 10 with “Forge Forward,” comprised of two world premieres—Kyle Abraham’s “The Bystander,” and Hubbard Street Choreographic Fellow Rena Butler’s “This, That, and the Third”—along with Crystal Pite’s “Grace Engine” (2011), which opened the program.
It was revelatory to see “Grace Engine” again, after first viewing it as the closer of Hubbard Street’s all-Pite show in December of 2017. Watching “Grace Engine” as a stand-alone next to contrasting work by others heightened my appreciation for Pite’s unique voice and vision, especially as its echo haunted the rest of the evening with its daunting drama and walloping impact. I was struck by the masterful dramatic build and integration of sound, lighting, and spatial design, from the echoing sounds of footsteps and the acceleration of locomotive engines in Owen Belton’s score, to the physical assault of Jim French’s back lighting, and the unrelenting evolution of solo, small group and full-ensemble movement. Through dance, Pite’s abstract movement script combines the visual, the visceral, and the emotional, making for a theatrical completeness that parallels that of our greatest contemporary playwrights.
Pite’s wildly off-center twists and sudden body reversals reach for unreachable extremes, with whipping limbs, back-arching spines and slashing pirouettes, all teetering on the tracks of an approaching train in composer Owen Belton’s hostile soundscape.
The Hubbard Street crew’s reactionary dive into Pite’s treacherous world delivers chilling virtuosity. Special kudos to Rena Butler’s silent body scream and the hair-trigger reactions of a men’s quartet. Connie Shiau and Abdiel Figueroa Reyes stand out in a duet where flow and continuity define a relationship of undulating connectedness amidst the disconnect surrounding them.
“Grace Engine” epitomizes Pite’s exploration of the torque of human machinery in an ever mechanized world. Here is a dance visionary worth keeping in sight. Might Hubbard Street grace future audiences with some of Pite’s more recent work?
You could argue that placing “Grace,” a piece Hubbard Street has by now honed to perfection, at the top of the program risked overshadowing the two brand new pieces that followed it, neither of which has as yet to gel with structural cohesiveness, either in performance or concept.
If I had seen these two subsequent pieces in a different order, or on a program with other pieces by each of these choreographers, would my expectations and perceptions be altered? Each presents engaging ideas and distinctive movement invention, but I couldn’t help comparing them to the intensity and fully-realized delivery of concept in “Grace.”
Beginning with a blood-curdling scream and a body on stage, MacArthur Genius Award recipient Kyle Abraham's “The Bystander” certainly forges forward on what promises to be new, uncharted paths. Where those paths ultimately lead, however, is somewhat confusing.
At first, it appears that “The Bystander” is a tongue-in-cheek melodrama, with stylized mime, but that quickly shifts to a scenario with Alysia Johnson, dressed in brown, as the Bystander, spatially isolated from the ensemble, which is costumed in shades of white and gray. Racial divide immediately comes to mind, a theme that is born out in the projected translations of sung text from composer Franz Schubert’s “Schwanengesang.”
While Schubert may have had something entirely different in mind, lines like “We are colored so differently, seen so differently, valued so differently,” can’t be heard in Abraham’s visual context without their suggesting the impact of race in defining identity in today’s world.
Well enough, but then an excess of long, detailed character bios, appears projected across the cyclorama. These characters form the cast of what reads like a soap opera of complex intersecting circumstances and relationships, rekindling the expectation of spoof. But where does it go? Into a strikingly lyrical duet of bird-like flutters, an argument between lovers in wiggles and waves, lush flapping and wrapping of bodies, a poisoning, a death, gun shots and tumbling bodies. Is it comedy?—no wait—tragedy?—fake death? Do we ignore the senseless murders?—No wait, they’re coming back to life. Am I missing something? And then it ends. Great dancing with a muddled message.
Rena Butler’s “This, That, and the Third” is more transparent in its stated intention of demonstrating the phenomenon of “code-switching,” which, if you didn’t know, means being one person here and another there. We all do it to one extent or another to survive socially, professionally, and personally, but for Butler, it has meant learning to survive by bridging two contrasting cultures in America, one black and one white.
“This, That, and the Third” is at its best when frolicking to the recurring hip-hop/rap beat of composer Darryl J. Hoffman’s original music. Butler puts her own inventive spin on jazzy street moves with attitude and style, giving her Hubbard Street family a fun jam in her hometown.  
But just when we think we’re on familiar turf, the infectious strains of “Dueling Banjoes” takes over, (read “code-switch”) and in an almost painful resistance to the culturally-specific American musical form of Bluegrass, the dancers just sort of hang out politely together, acting like Wonder Bread, in bland, non-specific movement vocabulary that revs up to an uninspired hootenanny of hand-clapping artifice. This is deliberate, I assume, as this choreographer is more than happy to show us her voracious appetite for full-out gobble-up-the space movement. 
An intriguing segment introduces a woman wearing a faceless full-head mask and trailing fabric extension, a stunning visual image that deserves further choreographic exploration and development. But Butler's strong recurring rap music segments have the potential to function thematically as deepening critical commentary, anchoring the less-focused elements that surround them.
As with her first piece for Hubbard Street, Butler has lots of great ideas that beg her to go the distance, and stay with them until exhaustion. Then trim. “This, That…” is an ambitious undertaking with important implications. As it stands, it has a bit of This, a bit of That, and not quite enough of The Third to make it all come together.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago resumes "Forge Forward" tonight and Sunday at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Dr. For tickets or more information, visit the event page linked below.