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Hubbard Street Dance Can Do Anything and They Like to Prove It

January 22, 2019

Cal Performances

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago last Saturday night at Zellerbach Hall offered a stunning show, capped with live music by Chicago band Third Coast Percussion. In the second of two weekend programs, the troupe — presented by Cal Performances — served up a banquet.

When your reviewer last clapped eyes on Hubbard Street, at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 1990 or so, it was to see a meticulously rendered Eight Jelly Rolls, by Twyla Tharp to the music of Jelly Roll Morton. Different era, different everything. Hubbard Street, once described as a jazz-dance company, is solidly modern, which means it can do anything it wants — that’s how the lines of demarcation have vanished. Vive la no difference. We grow and change, as Artistic Director Glenn Edgerton told me that night at intermission. Boy, don’t we ever. Edgerton, a star of the Joffrey Ballet when it still was New York-based (it’s in Chicago now), moved on to direct the Netherlands Dance Theater and in 2008 to Hubbard Street, founded in 1977 by Broadway veteran Lou Conte.

Not too surprisingly, Hubbard Street still displays a wonderfully eclectic appetite. Conte infused it with Broadway and then with more international adventures, into works by Nacho Duato, Ohad Naharin, and Jiri Kylian, founder of Nederlands Dance Theater. See how everything’s related? Edgerton, mentored by Joffrey Ballet cofounder Robert Joffrey, was long accustomed to historic explorations, great reaches into the past — the Joffrey repertory stretched back to Nijinsky and beyond — as well as contemporary creations by the likes of Joffrey co-founder Gerald Arpino. But onward: Change and grow, and now in 2019, glow.

Interestingly, the first piece on the program was a Third Coast instrumental, Perfectly Voiceless, by Devonté Hynes — aka Blood Orange — who also composed the music for the first two dances.

Grammy-winning Third Coast’s four musicians (Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore) play xylophones, marimbas, gongs, cymbals, claves, kettle drums, a screechy washboard-looking thing, and the melodica, of late popularized by Jon Batiste on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.

As good as Third Coast are, they’re even better because sometimes they look awestruck, their eyes following the sounds as they rise from the instruments. And who can blame them?

If the times change, so do creative outlets. The credits of choreographers Emma Portner and Teddy Forance include music videos, commercials and Dancing With the Stars. At Zellerbach, excerpts from Portner’s For All Its Fury, and Forance’s Everything Must Go were both set to music by Hynes, inspired by Sylvia Plath’s poem “Mushrooms.”

Hynes began his professional career in a punk band in Great Britain, then became known as Blood Orange, then wrote a solo album reflecting his life as a black man in America, and recently was one of four artists performing in Washington for Kennedy Center Honoree Philip Glass.

Emma Portner’s For All Its Fury for eight barefoot (well, with footies) dancers, comes with abstract banners suggesting some entwined brown underworld, and the dancers peep and peer behind and around the banners as things go forward at a stunning pace and pulse, before occasionally settling into quieter movements. They wear Hogan McLaughlin’s dark brown tunics and tights and the look, with the subdued lighting, is warm and rich. The movements are largely unisex as well; there is no suggestion of strength vs. fragility. And if you don’t know that mushrooms mate and fungi ripple, think again.

The four men and four women share the burdens, the floorwork and the leaps like colleagues rather than partners. All exude purpose, none more so than the statuesque Rena Butler in a powerfully supple solo. Later, a man begins writhing; another tries to subdue him on the floor; another joins in, trying to hold down his flailing arms and legs, as if they’re caught up in a game of whack-a-mole. It’s an excerpt, mind you, so it may have an ulterior meaning. But if not, it’s still absorbing.

In Teddy Forance’s Everything Must Go, everything does, beginning with two of the women accompanying the Left Coasters onstage with ringing bells, held high. They’re wearing lightweight, pastel pajama sets by McLaughlin, and joined soon by the six other dancers. Music and dance slow, and the piece turns to a bit of contact improvisation, slo-mo, and linked bodies, letting us look more closely at the dancers’ diversity as well as their understated unity of execution. There’s no “Hubbard look,” but the perfection of each move makes it seem so.

There are more closeups after intermission, as Ohad Naharin’s Ignore, for five women — Jacqueline Burnett, Alicia Delgadillo, Kellie Epperheimer, Adrienne Lipson, and Connie Shiau — provides solos for each one. Graceful, virtuosic, and buff, the dancers strike stunning poses, leap and turn, and show off their attributes via short, black, one-shouldered dresses. They are goddesses, delivering an injunction written by the poet Charles Bukowski and set to Arvo Part’s Fur Alina. It’s an accumulation text, with repetitions, power and laughs. “Ignore all possible concepts and possibilities” repeats over and over, moving on to ... “Ignore the Spider… Just make it, babe” ... soon followed by sexual and scatological advice. If they didn’t dance so well, it wouldn’t be so funny ... but there you are.

Pacopepepluto, choreographed by Alejandro Cerrudo, shows off three of the men —Kevin J. Shannon, David Schultz, and Michael Gross — soloing one-by-one on a dim stage, moving in near-nudity to Dean Martin songs, with aerobatic jumps and accelerating spins, every turn, leap, and landing right on the money. The lyrics, already cheesy, are made more so by the men’s insouciance, the offhanded, grinning glory of their dancing.

Seven dancers return for Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo, set to Brahms, a pleasing summation and extension of Hubbard Street’s many gifts. Again, the emphasis is on speed and control, balance even in moves that look impossible to sustain, and, as if in an album, close-formation lineups of the cast, downstage to up. Cascading snowflakes, via Tom Visser’s lighting, make a fine farewell.

Janice Berman was an editor and senior writer at New York Newsday. She is a former editor in chief of Dance Magazine.