Irene Hsiao

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago Season 39 Spring Series at the Harris Theater, 16-19 March 2017

Jardi Tancat

Hubbard Street dancers in Jardí Tancat, photo by Todd Rosenberg

Thursday evening found the seats of the Harris Theater less full than any other time I have seen it for the city’s beloved Hubbard Street Dance Chicago[1]—and the company the least diverse I have ever seen it.[2] The mixed bill program of contemporary works had no ostensible theme—perhaps works by living choreographers from and/or for Nederlands Dans Theater.[3] Given Hubbard Street’s somewhat incestuous relationship with NDT,[4] this is no surprise, though the relationship, I think, deserves some consideration.

Many of the major companies of the twentieth century attained their stature on the works of a single choreographer—New York City Ballet, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey—great artists of their time.[5] Perhaps the same could be said of Petipa and the Imperial Ballet (today the Mariinsky) a century before—yet there are and have been plenty of ballet companies sustained on the restaging and adaptation of these works. One might therefore make the claim that Petipa launched a thousand companies. However, no choreographers of modern and contemporary dance have yet acquired such influence, perhaps because their works involve vocabularies that have not been as thoroughly ingrained as ballet is to most dancers in the western world. To think about the situation on a purely temporal scale, ballet has had four and a half centuries to become the art form it is today—so-called modern dance has only had a little more than a hundred—“contemporary” is dated by Wikipedia to the mid-twentieth century, though I’m sure the time of its flourishing into the mainstream has been much briefer.

What is the purpose of a company that has no resident choreographer, or whose artistic director does not choreograph? Such a question doesn’t quite apply to Hubbard Street, since Alejandro Cerrudo has been resident choreographer since 2009. However, as with many sought-after choreographers in our time, he also works as a contractor on commissions with many other companies. Though I can’t claim to know from experience, it seems to me the possibility of creating truly unique work, of obtaining a unique and unified voice in that expression, is lessened when the interaction between choreographer and dancers occurs only in the setting of new work. Perhaps it is because I believe in input before output, training before choreography, a development of a mutually created aesthetic, even a philosophy, of what it is the dance should become, of choreography as a dialogue among artists. And certainly I don’t want to say that a la carte choreography entirely lacks this dialogue. But perhaps it can be agreed that it is a lesser priority if works are designed to be licensed and performed by anyone who has mastered the standard technique and who has the fiscal and infrastructural means to do so. It is very common—but isn’t it also strange that the choreographer’s oeuvre should be disembodied in this way, that there is no question that one can indeed separate the dancer from the dance?

As a company that has mastered pristine execution and that has some of the most accomplished dancers on the planet, as well as some of the most desirable works in the contemporary repertoire, Hubbard Street has gotten a pass on that question for years. And, of course, from the perspective of a performing artist, I believe most dancers who had the opportunity to experience many such creations—to learn from them the inside and to be transformed by them—would choose to do so. But what does it really mean to be the chameleon? Doesn’t it ultimately mean a form of artistry that is dependent on one’s willingness to erase oneself?

Creating works—new works—distinctive works—developing a voice that no one has ever heard before, that pushes the art somewhere it has never been, is not easy and surely can be done by very few. If we are to admit that this is so, we cannot fault companies for operating as they do, not as incubators for revolution but as standard-bearers and disseminators. The art needs this. And yet it seems like a tremendous blow to the art that those choreographers and companies who assume the risk of developing work that might night sell will be the first to feel the pains of the cuts to arts funding that are currently being threatened by our new administration. Will companies that have more resources take on the role of fostering fledglings, orphans, and the strange?

I don’t wish to imply that Hubbard Street must assume such responsibility (though companies that have influence probably ought to consider how their choices drive the art) or that Hubbard Street’s Spring Series was anything less than enjoyable, admirable, even stunning in places (the slow drift of snow falling, the dust rising from the heels of a gypsy, coarse blood, strange love, fellow feeling)—but it is difficult to look at lone dances these days and not think of where they come from and where they are going.

Imprint by Lucas Crandall

Violoncello by Nacho Duato

Jardí Tancat by Nacho Duato

Solo Echo by Crystal Pite

[1] Rahm Emanuel was in attendance, as were several of Chicago’s retired terpsichorean luminaries.

[2] Please note this is only an observation by someone who has attended performances irregularly over the last decade or so. I cannot confirm that it is the case, and I certainly cannot surmise at cause(s), if any.

[3] Lucas Crandall performed with and later became rehearsal director of NDT; Nacho Duato performed with and became resident choreographer of NDT; Crystal Pite has created several works on NDT.

[4] Jim Vincent, artistic director after HSDC founder Lou Conte, danced with NDT and left Hubbard Street to become artistic director at NDT—current artistic director Glenn Edgerton directed NDT before coming to HSDC.

[5] This is a very New York-centric list. On the European side, Nederlands Dans Theater under Jírí Kylian, Tanztheater Wuppertal under Pina Bausch, and ballet companies run by William Forsythe could be named. And I am sure there are many other companies I have omitted by accident or ignorance.

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This entry was posted on March 18, 2017 by and tagged , , , .
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