It’s a paradox that with technical perfection pretty much a given in any performance by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, keeping things fresh becomes that much more difficult. The widely admired contemporary dance company meets that challenge handily in its well-paced Winter Series program by offering pieces — including an exciting premiere by Swedish choreographer Mats Ek — with enough accessibility to allow audiences to mull over meaning as they enjoy the sheer beauty of the dancing.
In a shift from Hubbard Street’s usual practice of varying the program over its four-day run (Dec. 6 – 9), the Winter Series remains the same, but the performers change roles Thursday/Saturday and Friday/Sunday in all but the first piece, “Untouched,” created for the company in 2010 by Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton. Barton worked collaboratively with the 12 dancers to custom build the movements before selecting the music — a process that belies the way the music, especially Lev Zhurbin’s elegiac viola, seems to inform the movement.
More balletic than most Hubbard Street works, “Untouched” opens and closes without music. The moments of silence and stillness — as some dancers become onlookers to the mostly solo performers — do as much to define the piece as the dancing, with its vocabulary of flowing, split-legged movement. With a red velvet curtain as a dramatic backdrop and Fritz Masten’s silken jewel-toned costumes (whose subtle tie-dyed patterns are wasted in the murky lighting cast over most of the piece), “Untouched” gives the feeling of being inside a giant, beating heart.
Next up are two complementary pieces by dancer and resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. “Blanco,” created in 2010, features four women: Laura O’Malley, Meredith Dincolo, Jessica Tong and Kellie Epperheimer on Thursday/Saturday — all of them exhibiting super-feminine strength while sometimes doing headstands — with Jacqueline Burnett and Ana Lopez in place of O’Malley and Dincolo on Friday/Sun. The pleasure of watching “Blanco” is in noting the deliberate, hyper-controlled movement of the women, reminiscent of dancers in a class as they break a step down into micro-movements.
Cerruda's 2011 “Pacopepepluto” features three men — Johnny McMillan, David Schultz and Pablo Piantino — all terrific — on Thursday/Saturday and Kevin Shannon, Jason Hortin and Jonathan Fredrickson on Friday/Sunday. In the dim lighting the men appear to be nude, looking like posable artists’ mannequins come to life as they dance through increasingly frenetic movements to the pop ballads of Dean Martin and Joe Scaliassi.
A Hubbard Street premiere, “Casi-Casa” (“almost home”) was created by Euro-star Mat Eks in 2009 for Danza Contemporánea de Cuba. But “Casi-Casa”’s roots go deeper, because the piece is a hybrid of two earlier works by Ek, “Appartement” (“The Apartment,” 2005) and “Fluke” (2002). With a background in film and theater, Eks excels at dramatizing the undramatic, the everyday domestic moments that form most of our experience. But don’t be fooled: what may seem like easy-to-follow storytelling relies on the loopy logic of dreams, supported by music by Swedish band Fleshquartet.
Props — vacuum cleaners, a curvilinear chair, a sometimes smoking oven and a freestanding door that angles up into the air in one scene like a dancer en pointe — and street clothing costumes evoke a twisted domesticity and add to the accessibility of “Casi-Casa.” Peder Freiij created the props and costumes for “Appartement,” which was the basis for about three-quarters of the choreography for “Casi-Casa,” including male/female duets, a group of women doing a jig with vacuum cleaners and the striking opening featuring a seated man watching TV, powerfully danced by Quinn Wharton on Thursday/Saturday with Jason Hortin on Friday/Sunday.
“Fluke” supplied the material for some of the larger group dances and a men’s trio (David Schultz, Johnny McMillan and Jesse Bechard on Thursday/Saturday and Pablo Piantino, Kevin Shannon and Garrett Anderson on Friday/Sunday) interwoven into “Casi-Casa.” About midway through the piece dancers streak across the stage pulling ribbons of yellow-and-black striped police caution tape. For perhaps a full minute, the plastic ribbons are left to dance on their own — demonstrating that Mats Ek, who can choreograph plastic, is a real miracle worker.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago Winter Series 2012
Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph Drive, Chicago
Thursday, Dec. 6 at 7:30 pm
Friday, Dec. 7 at 8 pm
Saturday, Dec. 8 at 8 pm
Sunday, Dec. 9 at 3 pm
Tickets $25 – $99 at hubbardstreetdance.com or 312-850-9744.
Photos: Todd Rosenberg