Annenberg Center Live presents Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

Five dances, one night

I’ve reviewed Hubbard Street Dance Chicago four times since they appeared here in 1999. I thought they rocked then, and I was stunned in 2001 to see the improvements new artistic director Jim Vincent brought to the company. How could they have gotten better?

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, better than ever. (Photo courtesy of Annenberg Center Live.)

They were last here under his direction in 2007, and while still a great company, they had begun to fray around the edges. After helming Netherlands Dance Theater for 10 years, Glenn Edgerton took over as artistic director in 2009 and the 16-member company is razor-sharp again. Just as with the Pennsylvania Ballet, maybe it takes fresh leadership to keep a 40-ish-year-old company looking 20.

It certainly takes new dancers, and though none in this roster were familiar to me, they often thrilled the audience to their feet at the Annenberg Center Live series, eliciting wolf whistles and cheers. This was an audience who knew Hubbard and had waited too long to see them again.

Wonder and comedy

Hubbard acquired William Forsythe’s 2002 N.N.N.N. in 2015, and was the first U.S. company to perform it. This was its Philadelphia premiere. It’s a difficult work, done without music. But with cries, murmurs, and grunts from the dancers, it was a wonder to behold. Sans music, your senses focused your eyes to follow the intricacies of the pushes, pulls, angled arms, falls, dependencies on another’s thigh, shoulder, back, winging off an elbow, or springing off a knee.

Jacqueline Burnett, Ana Lopez, Andrew Murdock, and Kevin J. Shannon kept it going with the steady speed of a champion ping-pong match. Just as Shannon lunged and crooked an arm up, Murdock thrust his arm in a diagonal salute so the two arms merged into one long extended limb.

These geometrical shapes grew exponentially as the dance continued, creating some uncannily comical moments. One of the men placed the seated Lopez’s head in a position where he seemed to want it. As he flitted away, she twisted it back in a 180 as if to say, “What?” Another dancer hovered over a partner in a spread-legged pushup, shoving down the shoulders of the guy on the floor. Meanwhile the prone dancer pushed upward rhythmically; it had the comic desperation of Buster Keaton pumping a handcar on the railroad tracks in The General.

Daft and deft

Two women choreographers delivered ecstatic works. In the Philadelphia premiere of Robyn Mineko Williams’s Cloudline, you could feel a visceral response rippling through the audience, mirroring the magical shapes of the dance as a slowly descending backdrop became billowing clouds. A waltzy tango by Jherek Bischoff kicked it off as a romantic purple dream for seven dancers. The dancers made the old trick of undulating fabric and swelling it with air look entrancing and new again. As Julie London sang “The End of the World,” with a lone woman left lying on the stage, it seemed she was longing for a lost love (which is not always the end of the world).

Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo also used seven dancers dancing to Brahms. The men were as graceful as the women, the women as athletic as the men. In lineups of descending height, Tom Vissor lit their perfectly matched biceps to stand out like sculptures. There were several beautiful enchained motifs, perhaps suggesting the title’s ambiguity and asking, “Can we go it alone?”

Hubbard’s resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s tongue-in-cheek PACOPEPEPLUTO delivered the show’s punchline. Cerrudo had Michael Gross, Kevin J. Shannon, and David Schultz in revealing dance belts that, in Matt Miller’s shadowy lighting, made them look nude. Each danced virtuosically to songs by Dean Martin, and the middle section had the three scampering like cheeky rascals. Andrew Murdock led with “Memories Are Made of This.” His daft and deft body language set the tone for the rest of the piece’s dark fun. Kevin J. Shannon ran out full frontal as Martin crooned “How I'd love to hear the organ / in the chapel in the moonlight,” eliciting one of those hoots from the audience. David Shultz got the honor of dancing “That’s Amore,” and he did hit your eye like a big pizza pie, filling the stage with big, open-chested, joyous leaps.

Ana Lopez and Florian Lochner humorously danced Nacho Duato’s bonbon, Violoncello (duet from Multiplicity. Forms of Silence and Emptiness.). Lopez was the squirming cello. They’ll perform the same program at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey, on January 16, 2018, so take a quick trip up I-95 to see it if you missed this run.

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