Knowing this has been coming hasn’t exactly made it easy. I went tonight to review Hubbard Street Dance Chicago for the first time, its Spring Series running through Sunday at the Harris. Joining the company in 2002 is what brought me to Chicago—the evening it’s presenting includes two works I know intimately, one I’ve seen many times and two fresh on the scene.
Let’s start with the new.
I was informed Andrea Miller’s Blush was going to be on the program; I didn’t know it was going to be performed by the junior company, Hubbard Street 2. Mind you, I’m not complaining. All six dancers showed the chops-beyond-their-years for which HS2 has long been known, throwing themselves into Miller’s heavily-Naharin-influenced movement with abandon and consideration in balanced proportion. It’s just not as strong a piece as I had hoped. The vocabulary is fresh and commands attention, and the composition (owing just as much to Naharin’s example) remains concerned with the entirety of the stage space throughout. Everything is certainly “there” (Miller could do far worse by me, of course, than emulating one of my favorite choreographers). I just didn’t see anything besides the Batsheva pedigree (the Utah native was once a member of its junior company) and adoption of Gaga techniques on display. As an étude or précis it’s impeccable, but as an artistic statement it’s a void, the mixtape score (M.I.A., Fuck Buttons, Pimmon and Alog) only underlining its debt. Again, though, kudos to HS2’s dancers, administration and artistic staff: These kids are the Treadstone of Chicago dance.
Alejandro Cerrudo’s world premiere Off Screen is his third for HSDC. I wouldn’t call it a trilogy, and he doesn’t either, but there’s something continuous running through the works, a sense that he’s thinking about or at least aware of how his body of work is beginning to communicate with itself. There’s a fine line between recognizable elements of a personal style and empty rehashes of tricks that have worked in the past—Cerrudo has both feet planted firmly in the first case. He’s exploring a specific territory and staying close to his threads of investigation, but all the while finding new things within this palette. Off Screen is more leisurely than his other works at revealing a shape in the mind; what seemed at first to be a dropoff in formal rigor turned out (satisfyingly) to be an increased confidence in his talent for arc. It’s too rare these days to see dance that doles out information with this kind of attention to measure, and I appreciated greatly being taken for a thinking person.
The title of the work gives clues to its interpretation at the same time that it coyly witholds any definitive push toward solidifying a straight read. Nearly all of its thirteen pieces of music are culled from film soundtracks: Two come from Johnny Greenwood’s marrow-freezing There Will Be Blood score for strings, and there’s some Marcelo Zarvos and Peter Vronsky from The Door in the Floor, but then Cerrudo also pulls out some zany use of capricci by Paganini. It would be too all-over-the-place musically but again, the piece’s surprising close fits a lot of seemingly-square pegs snugly into their holes. Also filmic are Branimira’s costume designs, pants with suspenders and occasional vests in deep greens, navy and burgundy, with wine-colored short gloves calling to mind the delicacy required for handling celluloid. As with his previous work, Extremely Close, Cerrudo pays no small amount of attention to the architecture of the stage; here, however, it’s manipulated more softly and mysteriously, despite the décor’s changes’ matter-of-factness (the dancers are responsible for all of the wrangling of a huge piece of fabric, black and mottled on one side and silvered on the other).
I saw in Off Screen an abstraction of agnostic spirituality, wherein an “overture” precedes existence (the dancers ensemble on top of a softened floor, just beginning to make impressions on the space around them), followed by conception (a gorgeously fragile duet of folds and tosses by Ana Lopez and Benjamin Wardell), then scenes from lived life (a few brief duets and group scenes that play out in footlights on the apron, the silver screen stretched inside the proscenium behind them): First kiss, friendship, community. As the piece proceeds, the space continues to evolve albeit in modified retrograde: The silver screen is pulled to the ceiling, creating a billowing, grey cloud like a sinister Factory under which the group dances a melancholy sort of twilight slipping away—they’re now “underneath” the fabric where they began. Finally, and abruptly, the space swallows up the dance, dancers, and stage itself. An epilogue plays over curtain warmers in melodramatic eulogy for the profound brevity of all lifetimes.
I recently rewatched David Cronenberg’s brilliant short film, Camera. In it, Les Carson says the following:
Naturally, I had mixed feelings about a camera in the house because, really, if you look at it in a cold light, photography is death. It’s all about death: Memory and desire, aging and death. For an actor in particular, these things aren’t abstractions, these things are as real as looking in a mirror.
Off Screen‘s pondering of this oft-intoned perspective may be less severe, but it’s addressed just as fully nonetheless.
Jim Vincent’s counter/part I can hardly assess objectively–I danced it dozens of times while in the company and it was almost always a source of extreme anxiety and displeasure. By no means, however, do I wish to make this a venue for axe-grinding and sour grapes: What follows is an honest attempt at a viewer’s read of something I happen to know like the back of my hand.
Through a torrent of minuscule detail Vincent attempts to give visual body to each note of five works by J. S. Bach, three from various Brandenburg Concerti, as well as two pieces for solo instruments. Many subtle changes have been introduced since I last saw it performed, no surprise as it’s been massaged more or less continuously since its 2002 premiere. Jamy Meek was revelatory per usual in the role originated by Mario Zambrano; it was an absolute joy to see him dancing again, and looking better than ever. Penny Saunders brought the usual tasteful restraint and alchemical talents to her role as well, choosing her moments wisely and bringing a decent sense of progression to an endless stream of material (both deserve honorary doctorates in separating figure from ground in a way that makes all the choreography they perform a study in clarity and concision). No matter the amount of deliberation Vincent brings to his decisions on matters such as one-finger-raised-or-two and the precise syncopation of an exiting flourish, the problem remains that counter/part drowns in the flood of its ideas. For all the energy expended in a quest for what can only be the aim to equal Bach’s prodigious genius in contemporary movement, drawing upon discoveries big and small by everyone in the field past and present, the viewer’s only resultant experiences are confusion at the choreographer’s intent and an abiding admiration for the ability of the dancers to even come close to executing Vincent’s constantly-revised encyclopedia of instructions. You might say it’s choreography’s Infinite Jest minus the punctuation.
Also not worth the effort (and also a work I know all too well) is Daniel Ezralow’s SF/LB, the Leonard Bernstein-scored version of his 2004 full-company piece. Originally created to music by David Lang (which version is now billed SF/DL), it’s translated almost entirely without modification, save the deletion of a closing section, to Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, meaning no more and no less at the other end of the move. Billed as a “choreographic assistant” in the program notes is Erin Elliot and, while I can say she was definitely of assistance (I was there), unfortunately absent of credit is the work’s original cast, Hubbard Street’s full company at the time, who generated nearly all of the material in both versions of the piece. At the time of its premiere at the Lensic PAC in Santa Fe, the prefix “SF” meant nothing in particular; to my knowledge, it still doesn’t.
Lucas Crandall’s Gimme, from 2004 as well, felt richer tonight than other times I’ve seen it. I’ve always liked the duet and found it one of his best works, but something unique to the pairing of Robyn Mineko Williams and Terence Marling throws Crandall’s ideas into high relief–I saw many moments in this performance for the first time. Marling sips from a capacity for explosive power few in this town can match, and Williams continues to beguile, dancing each time I see her with greater conviction and making ever-more-intriguing choices. Scott Kepley’s lighting design has a color story one doesn’t often see in concert dance: Deep magenta and almost-ultraviolet blue, it calls to mind 1960s concert posters and 1980s music videos, cleanly foiling the austere mechanics of the couple’s sparring and hard, punky-chic costumes. Swedish band Blå Bergens Borduner’s Polska Efter Blinda Pelle breaks a tensely silent opening vignette with the release of catchy, propulsive, vaguely-ethnic rhythms, heavy collisions and rough embraces lending the dancers’ bodies the quality of inflated skeletons wrestling in foreplay. Crandall consistently makes work that “gets to the point” without much fuss; often nestled within programs full of quadruple-entendres and fumbled intellectual gymnastics, they’re always a welcome respite.