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From Street to Stage

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago was in New York for a two-week run March 12–24 at the Joyce Theater, a venue that consistently programs excellent smaller dance companies in its 472-seat theater. Both New York audiences and the companies benefit from its presence. The 14-member company, named for the street in Chicago that was its first home more than forty years ago, presented six works on two programs, one each week. 


Hubbard Street Dance Chicago: mixed repertory


The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, April 19 & 23 matinees, 2024


Eva S. Chou

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in “Dichotomy of a Journey” by Darrell Grand Moultrie. Photo by Michelle Reid

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The dances were well suited to a company this size. Most had a section that involved nearly the whole company; in these, the dancers were on stage much of the time while individual performers emerged in solo, duo, or larger units. Many of the dances had same-sex partnering, a motif eased by a company that does not seek uniformity in physique, or lifts of one dancer by many, which achieves the same end of varied partnering. There were many substitutions in the second week, illustrating the cascading effect of injury on a small company, but it also showed that company members are well prepared in many roles.

Reflecting the frequent change in active repertory that is its hallmark, Hubbard, now under the direction of former Ailey star Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, brought only works from the last two years. Commissioned works were notable among the six: all three in the first program and one in the second.

Darrell Grand Moultrie's 2022 “Dichotomy of a Journey” was a good piece with which to begin the Joyce residency, for its seven sections began and ended with the whole company, while the middle four were solos or duos. The audience could become acquainted with the company's spirit as a whole and with individual dancers.

“Dichotomy of a Journey” began with company dancers entering from different sides, running or walking at a good clip across the stage, reminiscent of the famous, exuberant final section of Paul Taylor's “Esplanade.” Clad in reddish orange tops and bottoms, whose overwhelming color was tempered by variations of tights, jeans and shorts, the dancers made an energetic impression. The section ended effectively, with half the dancers lifting, the other half being lifted overhead in exiting, those aloft cheerfully horizontal, limbs akimbo.

The soloists Michele Dooley and Aaron Choate were striking, the dancers in duets were beautifully well matched, certain sections, like the opening, were exuberant, others more melodramatic, but by the end, 35 minutes later, I still hadn’t figured out what the piece had to do with dichotomy or journey.

Shota Miyoshi and Simone Stevens with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in “Nevermore” by Thang Dao. Photograph by Michelle Reid

Thang Dao’s “Nevermore” (2023) began with the Edgar Allen Poe poem, in which a raven intones the title word and the poem's speaker mourns his separation from his beloved Lenore, who has died. The poem was spoken in voiceover while the bereft lover (Elliot Hammans), in a poet's billowing white shirt, danced in a distraught manner, restrained by a small number of dancers as ravens. A second story followed, also with separated lovers, also with ravens—in fact, nearly the whole company as ravens. This time the source was a folktale Cowherd and Weaving Girl, found in Vietnam and other East Asian countries. Now there was a role for a female dancer (Jacqueline Burnett, in a long red dress and drape). Together Hammans and Burnett danced, joyously united by ravens, then forcibly separated by them. (The lovers may meet only once a year, over a bridge made by ravens.) Thang Dao has spoken about his Vietnamese background and how through these two sources, both involving separated lovers and ravens, he has found a way to bring together East and West. It may be that the libretto of this very emotive piece intends to fuse the stories into one, the lovers simultaneously poet and cowherd, Lenore and Weaving Girl.

The costumes for the ravens, by Calvin Tran & Neftaly Silva, were really successful. The ravens, both men and women, were clad head to toe in a black garment, unstructured beneath the shoulders, its dull black relieved by a glossy, gleaming panel down the side. Their feet were in sleek red footwear to just up above the ankles (bird claws?). Unisex, looming, frightening.

Equally effective was their creaturely movement. The arms added to a sinister effect, especially when a raven advanced towards the audience. Choreographed like wings, the arms were bent at the elbows and again at the wrists, from which the hands are acutely angled to accentuate the fingers splayed like the slats of wings. In the many lifts, usually involving two or three dancers, lift up another and the lifted raven twisted and turned as though in the air.

Cyrie Topete in “Dear Frankie” by Rennie Harris. Photograph by Michelle Reid

“Dear Frankie” (2023) is an appropriately Chicagoan piece for this Chicago company: a tribute to Frankie Knuckles, the Chicago deejay famed for introducing house music to a wider audience outside club culture, from Rennie Harris, famed for introducing street dance to the proscenium stage. (The music in this dance is by Harris's long time music collaborator, Darrin Ross.) The piece opens with a letter: “Dear Frankie,” it begins, “You changed my life.” There it is, in four words. What else do you need to know?

The stage was set up like a club, dark with some dramatic lighting and peopled with the casually dressed, some of whom stepped out to take the spontaneous solos that are a convention of improvisation. I couldn't help thinking that Harris’s ambition to take hip hop outside its street model must be as hard to realize to perfection as it is to layer, say, Graham technique on bodies deeply trained in other ways. The Hubbard Street Dancers, whose name is so apt for this piece, gave a rousing rendition of Harris' choreography and sent the audience out with smiles on their faces.

Simone Stevens and Jack Henderson in “Coltrane's Favorite Things” by Lar Lubovitch. Photograph by Michelle Reid

Lubovitch's 2010 “Coltrane's Favorite Things” is a bit of a retro piece, featuring a triple hit of the mid-century: Rodgers and Hammerstein's “My Favorite Things” from the 1959 Sound of Music, subsumed in John Coltrane's famed 1961 saxophone variations, and, as backdrop, a projection of the massive 1950 drip painting by Jackson Pollock Autumn Rhythm No. 30. The dance was characteristically Lubovitch in its continuous stream of dancers. Especially notable were Simone Best and Shota Miyoshi in a cast substitution. Perfectly matched in infectious energy, they burst out in horizontal somersaults circumferencing the stage. At the end of nonstop dancing, the performers resembled teenagers limp with fatigue after a sock hop. They were drooped over at the waist, arms dangling. The surviving pair (Best and Miyoshi) held on for a few more bars, leaning onto each other, until they gently collapsed to the ground. This year, Lubovitch turned 80. He has been widely celebrated at various New York venues. It was a pleasure to see another of his works this week.

Alysia Johnson, Cyrie Topete, Abdiel Figueroa Reyes, Matt Wenckowski, and Alexandria Best in “Return to Patience” by Aszure Barton. Photograph by Michell Reid

“Aguas que van, quieren volver” (“Waters that go want to return”) was the first quiet piece on the two programs. Choreographed by Rena Butler for a trio that could be either two men and a woman or two women and one man (as in the performance I saw, Jacqueline Burnett, Elliot Hammans, Simone Stevens, all intense, taut) the work starts as it ends, the three closely lined up one behind the other along a diagonal, nearly silhouettes. This close relation on a diagonal formed the base pattern through the 17-minute piece. Whether dancing together or separated, handing one person off to another, walking, their connections with each other recalled this start and finish. In between there was a great deal of sorrow and also anger—one person stabs himself, two seemed antagonists at points—but the conclusion of these pattern with a return to the silhouetted start brought a kind of closure.

“Return to Patience,” a company premiere of a 2015 work by in-demand Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton, was also a quiet work. For twelve dancers dressed in loose white pants and long-sleeved white tops bathed in blue light on a light blue floor and against a light blue backdrop, this was the most balletic of the works, especially in its beginning and end. Five men and seven women stood in staggered lines. To the opening notes of Caroline Shaw’s piano piece “Gustave Le Grey,” the dancers, who were barefoot in parallel sixth position, opened to first. In a gentle, understated manner, they rose on half point, lowered, slipped to second position, then to fourth diagonal, rose on half point again, and finally turned to the opposite diagonal. This marks out the square of classical ballet, but here without the usual erect presentation. The company left. One dancer, then two, took the stage. A third entered, the first two left, and so on. When the whole ensemble returned, they marked the corners of the ballet square again. The unusual choice to end a concert with a quiet piece perhaps points to Barton’s next work for the company, for she is to be their resident choreographer for the next three years.

Eva S. Chou

Eva Shan Chou is a cultural historian of China, currently at work on "Ballet in China: A History." She has published articles on the establishment of the Beijing School of Dance, on China's firstSwan Lake, the founding figure Dai Ailian, and China’s cultural policies. ForBallet Review(New York)she wrote on performances by Stuttgart Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Opera Ballet of Rome, as well as companies from China performing in the US.Sheis professor in the Department of English, Baruch College, City University of New York.



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