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Dance Review:

HUBBARD STREET DANCE CHICAGO at Cadillac Palace Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

Since Jim Vincent was named Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s new artistic director in the summer of 2000, the community has been watching and anticipating the troupe’s inevitably changing tone – from jazzy/theatrical eclecticism to more obscure experimentation. Many have been on the lookout for Vincent’s company choreographic debut, a sheer sign of where HSDC is headed. That telling moment finally arrived during last night’s opening of HSDC’s spring engagement at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, with the world premiere of Vincent’s "part/counterpart."

The result is both refreshing and disconcerting. It’s always a good thing when artists continue to push the boundaries of movement. Yet one wonders how far those boundaries can be shoved in a company known for its complex and provocative, yet ultimately entertaining and theatrical, sensibilities. Change, as has long been proven, is one of life’s most grueling challenges. And I acknowledge that HSDC is going through a pivotal transition right now.

There’s also no question that Vincent is taking the troupe in daring new directions. But this edgier vision must not negate HSDC’s established tone, which has always seamlessly blended electrifying humor with evocative choreographic ideas. Vincent must keep in mind the company’s longtime commercial appeal, which has attracted such a loyal following. The last thing HSDC would want to do is alienate those scores of stalwart supporters.

I felt like that was beginning to happen after viewing the two opening works: Vincent’s classically inverted ensemble piece awash in the ravages of love and death, "part/counterpart"; and the company premiere of Ohad Naharin’s "Queens/Black Milk," two distinct segments with spiritually tormented themes executed in a swirl of cliched abstraction.

Divided into six contrasting sections, set to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Vincent’s "part/counterpart" –- its coyly deconstructed Renaissance costumes by Mara Blumenfeld suggesting images from Shakespeare’s "Taming of the Shrew" – fuses allegory with raw sexuality. Yet its rotating structure, which continually turns in on itself, creates a self-conscious disjointedness. Vincent’s fencing, roughhousing and slouched movements, as well as a ragdoll-like reversal of the balletic line, make for intriguing psychological stage pictures. They also leave one searching for a solid choreographic viewpoint.

The dancers, while adept throughout the evening and capable of tackling the most daunting choreographic challenge, prove their fluidity with an entirely new style of moving. Of particular intensity and fascination is Lauri Stallings as a woman stripped down to her primal essence and Mario Alberto Zambrano as a red-skirted dirge-like figure of lust.

Vincent combines mock courtier gestures with gritty variations on the pastoral-folkloric ensemble staple. He also incorporates a sensual nude segment behind a gauze curtain and Massimo Pacilli’s breathy narration of Italian phrases. But, for most of this 27-minute work, these avant-garde touches feel contrived and strung together for the sake of looking arty and, dare I say, more European. "part/counterpart" has moments of ethereal beauty and compelling ideas, which do not extend to a searing or meaningful whole.

Naharin’s "Queens/Black Milk" suffers a similar puzzlingly incomplete fate. The Israeli choreographer’s sensory-numbing choice of music by Arvo Part and Paul Smadbeck only adds to the tedious monotony. "Queens" is essentially a series of aching solos for eight women, who later join together in a tottering march on half-point toward an ominous void. What stands out is each solo’s ruptured sense of anguish. In a painful twist of movement vocabulary, each dancer appears to be constrained by her own body – not set free. At times, the women – especially Stallings – seem to be tracing their tremulous existence limb by limb.

Yet the structure of the piece is too dull and discombobulating to convey any clear ideas. The men’s portion, "Black Milk," is rife with high-priest images – bare-chested men in wide-legged white pants slathering themselves in mud, whirling around like dervishes, aggressively confronting each other and then finding redemption in the over-used cleansing device of dousing oneself with water. Without the strong, athletic female and male ensemble wowing us with their technical proficiency, "Queens/Black Milk" could easily lull one not into a meditative state – but into a deep sleep.

The uneven programming united the always exhilarating Sandi J. Cooksey and Ron De Jesus in Lou Conte’s signature dream duet, "Georgia." And the evening concluded with a power-packed rendition of Daniel Ezralow’s 1990 futuristic wrestling-mating extravaganza, "Read My Hips," which – albeit showing its pop-culture wrinkles – bridges the gap between dangerous mystery and wry humor: qualities HSDC must not lose for the sake of reshaping its vision for the 21st century.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago continues its spring engagement with a premiere by Irish choreographer Marguerite Donlon, more established works from its repertoire and a special program featuring its second company, Hubbard Street 2 (April 25 at 2 p.m.), through April 28 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph. Tickets: $18-$65. Call 312-902-1400.

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