Hubbard Street ‘Winter Series’ Review — Snow Falling on Dancers, and Other Delights

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in 'Solo Echo'

Yes, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago cultivates cutting-edge choreographers and nurtures one of the most technically accomplished troupes of dancers in the world. But dance performances can be about more than dance, with lighting, sets and costumes sometimes playing pivotal roles. In the case of Hubbard Street’s “Winter Series,” now at the Harris Theater, the snow nearly steals the show.


That snow accumulates with the fourth and final piece in the series, “Solo Echo,” choreographed by internationally in-demand Crystal Pite, who chose Hubbard Street for the U.S. premiere of the piece she created in 2012 for Nederlands Dans Theater. As a Canadian, Pite knows a thing or two about snow, as does Québécois Eric Beauchesne, staging artist for “Solo Echo.”


Snowy stages aren’t uncommon — just look to “The Nutcracker.” What distinguishes this snow is Tom Visser’s dazzling lighting design. Initially the falling snow is a horizontally lit band in the middle of the backdrop that frames the dancers and contrasts with their charcoal pinstriped pants and vests, designed by Jake Visser and Pite, who wanted the dancers to project an “everyman” quality. Later the horizontal slash disappears, only to be replaced with a fully lit backdrop of flakes — “a lot to sweep up,” as one audience member noted.



Clockwise from far left: Emilie Leriche, Michael Gross, Florian Lochner, Andrew Murdock, Jacqueline Burnett, Kellie Epperheimer, foreground, and Jesse Bechard in 'Solo Echo'


Pike named the wintry piece after she choreographed it. Looking for a way to express the feeling of winter, whether meteorological or at life’s end, she came across poet Mark Strand’s “Lines for Winter,” included in the program: “Tell yourself as it gets cold and gray falls from the air that you will go on walking….”


Typically, Pite seeks out the creation of original music, but “Solo Echo” draws much of its punch from classical composer Johannes Brahms. That music fuels the piece’s defined movements and circling arms and showcases the strength and graceful athleticism of the Hubbard Street dancers. The seven performers represent a range of body types to become that “everyman”: Jesse Bechard, Jacqueline Burnett, Kellie Epperheimer, Michael Gross, Emilie Leriche, Florian Lochner and Andrew Murdock at the Thursday performance.



Jacqueline Burnett & Andrew Murdock in 'Waxing Moon'


As successful as Pike’s piece is, honors for best-in-show go to veteran Hubbard Street dancer and choreographer Robyn Mineko Williams for her breathtaking “Waxing Moon,” which made its debut a year ago at “Princess Grace Awards: New Works.” Like the moon itself, the piece glows with an ageless beauty. Much of its power comes from restraint: the audience can almost see the boundaries that enclose the dancers and concentrate their movement.



Burke Brown’s subtle lighting design and Hogan McLaughlin’s elegantly simple costumes support a trio of dancers: Andrew Murdock, Jacqueline Burnett and Jason Hortin on Thursday. The trio may be a love triangle that resolves into a lyrical pas de deux, with a dance vocabulary of triangular arm and leg movements. Punchy original music by Robert F. Haynes and Tony Lazarra inspires a palette of movement, balletic in tone: “Waxing Moon” allows the audience to indulge in the pleasure of a pointed toe or arched insole. At the same time the piece is as contemporary as the metal folding chair that substitutes for full gymnastic apparatus.



“Waxing Moon” is the second piece in the series, which opens with world premiere “A Glimpse Inside a Shared Story,” danced by Hubbard Street 2 and choreographed by Chinese native Yin Yue. Yin was one of two artists selected from Hubbard Street’s 16th International Commissioning Project, and the company is to be commended for encouraging new works internationally and from within its own ranks of dancers.


Choreographer Yin Yue in rehearsal (photo by Bill Hebert)


The early-career dancers of Hubbard Street 2 — Natalie Leibert, Adrienne Lipson, Katlin Michael Bourgeois, Zachary Enquist and Elliot Hammans on Thursday — bring fresh expression to their performance and are only a shade less polished than the main troupe, which is to say, quite polished indeed. But the movements Yin choreographs are abstract and inaccessible, and the drab unisex costumes by Rebecca M. Shouse don’t add interest. Pulsing contemporary music by Gas (Wolfgang Voigt), Machinefabriek (Michel Banabila and Ruger Zuydervelt) and The Advent and Jason Fernandes further disengages.


The ray of light in “A Glimpse” is a real ray of light, Julie E. Ballard’s insightful lighting design, with a cone of light illuminating a soloist at the beginning and low light that transforms the performers for a few moments into eerie dancing skeletons, a nice bit of stage magic that focuses attention on the pluses in Yin’s choreography.


Penny Saunders, right, in rehearsal with Elliot Hammans, far left, and Adrienne Lipson


Alice Klock, left, and Emilie Leriche in 'Out of Keeping'

Choreographer and veteran Hubbard Street dancer Penny Saunders offers up world premiere “Out of Keeping” for the program’s intermezzo, set to a mix of music ranging from Icelandic artist Ólafur Arnalds to Domenico Scarlatti. Jewel-toned costumes by Branimira Ivanova work nicely to sort out the five pairs of female and male dancers. But that eye candy doesn’t relieve the monotony of movement that, while lovely, doesn’t truly engage the audience. What does finally engage are the enormous shadows of the dancers against the back wall of the stage. Thanks to visual designer Michael Mazzola for that wonderful touch.


Hubbard Street Dance Chicago Winter Series


Through Dec. 13, 2015


Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park, 205 E. Randolph St., Chicago


Tickets $30–$99 at Hubbard Street Dance or 312-850-9744




Photos: Todd Rosenberg


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