'What a celebration!' Lubovitch season opener at the Harris puts his choreographic brilliance on display

The Harris Theater strikes a bold chord launching it’s 2019-2020 dance season with “A Celebration of Lar Lubovitch,” running for just two performances, Saturday night, Oct. 5th and Sunday afternoon, Oct. 6th.

Staging a whole program of a single choreographer’s work with four different dance companies can be a challenging enterprise to coordinate, and an ambitious one to curate. The success of the Harris’s tribute to Chicago native and internationally-acclaimed choreographer Lar Lubovitch, owes much to the inspiration Lubovitch, Jay Franke and David Herro brought to their innovative, 10-year experiment called The Chicago Dancing Festival. Their objective, back in 2006, was to build Chicago’s audience for dance through exposure to some of the best dancing and choreography across America, including Chicago’s own rich resources, in a glorious week of free concerts at several different downtown concert venues. Their 10-year experiment certainly helped to boost Chicago’s stature as one of the country’s premiere dance cities, and the packed audience at the Harris on Saturday night was proof that the prolific Lubovitch has played an integral part in that success.

The concise program offered the best of both continuity and variety, with four pieces created between 1997 and 2010. Lubovitch’s unique choreographic voice and artistic predilections are in clear evidence in the pervasive lyricism, technical complexity, visual design and musical visualization in each of the four works, and yet each offered a distinctive aspect of this master choreographer’s rich palette, giving us a delectable opportunity to appreciate the breadth of his contribution to the art form.

The two large group works, opening with “Dvorak Serenade” (2007) and closing the evening with “The Legend of Ten” (2010), are similarly structured in their pursuit of musical form as a means to paint the space in grand strokes with lush movement. Both demonstrate the choreographer’s taste for complex rhythmic and spatial configurations and his masterful use of large group movement to heighten the emotional impact of a contrasting duet or quartet.

“Dvorak Serenade” received an uneven performance by a dozen dancers from Ballet Austin, who seemed at times to be chasing the music rather than embodying it. Bound upper body carriages constrained Lubovitch’s breathy suspensions and expansive spirals, and murky timing clouded some of the ingenious canon structure that creates a sense of flowing water in much of Lubovitch’s group movement. The exceptions were Ashley Lynn Sherman and Oliver Greene-Cramer, whose poetic duet interludes slipped in and out of the group flow like crystalline droplets in a watery landscape. The beauty of the choreographic structure and its exquisite sensitivity to the musical rapture of Dvorak’s “Serenade in E major” came through, despite the dancers’ limitations. Unison group movement gave way to the peeling off of broad arcs, swinging arms, leprechaun-like contracted jumps and loosely tossed heads. The visual delight of spiraling bodies around each other in a curvilinear world brought the music to a visceral level that was clearly part of the choreographic design, if not yet fully realized in Ballet Austin’s performance of it.

Such was not the case in the Martha Graham Dance Company’s superb performance of “The Legend of Ten,” originally commissioned by and set on the company. Set to Brahms’s “Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor,” the piece maps out the music in an almost literal choreographic painting, orchestrating the human body with a musical lexicon of arresting impulses, quirks and sheer joy. The Graham Company dancers, so deeply grounded in their spines, command Lubovitch’s movement with authority and exuberance. The bold group movement both pays homage to and toys with the bows of historic courtly dance, balletic leaps and turns, the circle dance, skipping and hand clapping of folk dance, and the Giocometti-like contractions, falls, recoveries, suspensions and spirals of classic modern dance, all set in motion and utterly freed to Lubovitch’s glorification of Brahms. Ingenious alternation of unison movement with canons of dancers constantly flowing in and out of changing group configurations keeps this piece building to the finish line. These dancers get to the heart of what Lubovitch is all about—his capricious asides delight in the music as ears drink it in and bodies release it into space in the ecstatic explosion of movement.

Sandwiched between the two larger pieces, we are treated to two gems. “Little Rhapsodies” (2007), set to Robert Schumann’s “Symphonic Etudes” Opus 13, is playful, heart-wrenching, elfin, percussive, slinky, slippery, devilishly difficult and a magnificent showcase for three astonishing men: Andrew Murdock and Craig Black from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and Jonathan Emanuell Alsberry from the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company. Dancing as a trio, in couples and solo, their crisp execution underscores Lubovitch’s capacity for both wit and emotion. His discovery of both extremes in Schumann reinvents the music with movement that resists a conventional response to its familiar rhythms and melodies. Andrew Murdock’s solo sequences pack an emotional wallop, with contrasting dynamics of flow and lilting suspension, elasticity and the arresting strike of a slashing arm. Murdock seems to slip inside his own spine and re-emerge from inner torment. Alsberry’s Puckish tour de force pits tricky allegro footwork with the jaunty gestures of a court jester, full of choreographic pun, and Black’s balletic lyricism couples with silly-putty slinkiness.

Revisiting Lubovitch’s “Othello,” with the Joffrey Ballet’s Fabrice Calmels as Othello, Victoria Jaiani as Desdemona, Temur Suluashvili as Iago, and Rory Hohenstein as Cassio in three scenes from Act III gave me the chance to marvel once again that not only is this choreographer a master of musical visualization, but also visualization of Shakespearian text. Seeing these three discrete scenes told the whole story in movement, revealed the inner conflicts of Othello, his struggle between his subtext and his outer speech, the duplicity of Iago, the victimization of Cassio, and the innocent devotion of Desdemona. Masterful character delineation and nuanced movement dialogue, especially in the brilliant duet between Iago and Othello, were matched by the sublime artistry of these dancers.

While you can certainly detect the influence of Lubovitch’s mentors, José Limón, Martha Graham and Antony Tudor, in his unabashed embrace of ballet and a firm anchor in the structural conventions of classic 20th century modern dance, his is a thoroughly refreshing synthesis that moves the best of classic tradition in new directions all his own. What a celebration! Thank you, Harris Theater, and thank YOU, Mr. Lubovitch!