Sunday, February 8, 2009

And to think that I saw it on Hubbard Street

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago blew into town on Friday like a warm, seductive choreographic breeze. And the sold-out-house for the first of the group's Celebrity Series concerts was certainly smitten. No wonder; Hubbard's dancers were as smoothly impeccable as ever - fluid and daring and utterly committed, physically, emotionally, and dramatically, to the work. It was hard not to fall for them, hard. And the work itself was always clever and diverting. One piece found a beautiful, loose idiom for the vocal swoops of pop music; another morphed from dance into slapstick and back again before our eyes. And all played thoughtfully with the relationship between dance and its accompaniment - dances tended to "begin" before their music, or leapt "outside" it, or trailed on past its end. In a way, the evening felt like a sleek demonstration of self-aware physical prowess, wrapped with a kind of virtual ribbon on top.

But in dance today (and actually in many of the arts) there seems to be no limit to the technique available; dancers now are able to do anything a choreographer could require. The open question is whether the choreographer can keep up with that virtuosity. And certainly Hubbard Street can, at least at the level of smooth, sophisticated pleasure. But a subtle-yet-building sense of superficiality pervaded the evening - at least until its finale, "Walking Mad," which finally felt like a piece big and exciting enough to take on a national tour.

To be fair, the concert also began with a charmer - "Lickety-Split," (above left) by Alejandro Cerrudo, a company dancer turned choreographer - set to songs by SF "psych folkie" Devendra Banhart. The piece, which builds from small gestures for six dancers into a series of fluid, morphing, semi-romantic hook-ups for three couples, is light and delightful, and I have to admit Cerrudo has found a nearly-perfect physical language for Banhart's rhythmic lilt. But there's a kind of choreographic limit built into the songs themselves: they're lovely, but they never quite come into focus; hinting at moods rather than actually delivering them, they feel as if they're being texted to us between bong hits rather than sung. The problematic thing is, I sense this mix of emotional haze and knowing distance is a close match to the expectations of Hubbard Street's smart, twenty-something audience (the dancers were even dressed in Gen Y attire); I just found the sexy formula grew a little thin.

But maybe this was only because the formula was repeated immediately, in Lucas Crandall's "Gimme," a winking bit of bondage lite which was again highly accomplished, and again, to be fair, quite amusing (it also felt, like much of the program, a bit like Nederlands Dans Theater, but more on that in a later post). The knockabout duet found Jessica Tong and Jason Hortin bound by a thin cord that finally, after a lot of cute, push-me-pull-you posturing, drew them together into a kiss just like that piece of spaghetti in Lady and the Tramp. Short and tart, it felt a bit like a curtain-raiser asked to carry more weight than it naturally could. But the following, longer dance by Doug Varone, "The Constant Shift of Pulse," proved even thinner. Set to a hammering score for double piano by John Adams, the piece followed what seemed to be a tidal eddy - or perhaps some dynamic set of data points - as it rose and fell, and rose and fell. And rose and fell. And fell and fell. As always, the dancers were dynamic (choreographer Cerrudo was in the mix), as was Varone's tireless devotion to yet another variation on his basic meme. Still, it was basically yet another curtain-raiser, only this time not so short.

Finally, with "Walking Mad," the evening seemed to expand to the proportions a dance tour should command. Johan Inger's work was sleekly clever, like the rest of the program, but this time the dance scrambled conceptually all over the place, and even opened out (or closed down) occasionally to a more satisfying emotional depth. Set to Ravel's "Bolero," the choreography actually played off its incipient sense of erotic cliché by wildly mixing slapstick with all manner of postmodern theatre games. A lonely dancer in a bowler hat, after entering from the audience like one of Beckett's clowns, encountered (with a Looney-Tunes splat) a long gray wall, which immediately began to open out (and in) to create a kind of psychological playspace. And the dance was off and running (literally) - boys chased girls, girls chased boys, symbolic props were traded or proffered or pursued, and several oddball duets went down as some kind of birthday party began amidst all the chaos. And that wall! Sometimes it fell before the dancers like the wall of Jericho, and sometimes it closed in on a lonely dancer (the memorable Meredith Dincolo) like her own internal despair; it was practically another performer. And throughout, "Bolero" built ditzily to its ponderously orgasmic close. Never was goofy so sexy, nor sexy so goofy.

Alas, the piece ends with a slight misstep - a sudden, desolate coda to a chiming chunk of Arvo Pärt, of all people. Maybe this was intended as another little joke? Or was it an unconscious admission that even Hubbard realizes it's too often sleek but a little slender? Whatever the reason, the gesture toward depth belongs elsewhere - "Walking Mad" would be madly perfect without it.

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