Hubbard Street and LINES Resident Choreographers
Double the Pleasure
Now in its 35th year, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago appeared at Berkeley’s Zellerbach auditorium under the auspices of Cal Performances on February 1, in an innovatively configured program that it shared with San Francisco-based Alonzo King LINES Ballet, in which dancers from both companies interpreted King’s World Premiere of Azimuth.
The dancers from the geographically separated companies rehearsed together by virtue of Internet imaging technology, and only had a scant number of live bricks–and-mortar rehearsals to prepare for opening night.
Courtney Henry, LINES’s most stately and elegant woman dancer stands alone, lengthening her back and arms, and sending ripples of movement in all directions. The bodies of dancers in nude or near-nude leotards enter the stage to a choral interlude in Ben Juodvalkis’s original music. Henry is joined by dancers who walk and run in a circle that resolves into a kind of thatch of bodies of assorted sizes.
They regroup and advance from stage left to right, tramping to the forced march slowed pace of fatigued soldiers. Arms and legs sweep, the random body humps, slumps or extends a very long leg, in a swirl of molecular activity.
Hubbard Street’s new acquisition Laura O’Malley joins Henry to co-captain a team of four women and six men. Taken together, they add up to a Minyan, and that quick calculation is accentuated by a man’s voice chanting in Hebrew. There’s ringing and tapping, and then all the dancers disappear except for Ricardo Zayas, who is jumping and turning to sounds from everyday life. His fingers and feet fly as if scorched by the sizzle of the sound effects. It raises the question of how the dancer finds the music in such sounds without a body that is both in tune and attuned to the relationship of them to one another. In the movement entitled “Women,” those of that sex bring their legs around their midsections and then bend into deep pliés with a single leg extended. The dancers cut figures that are quick study sketches, primitive cave drawings captured in half-movements.
In a naturalist adagio, Kellie Epperheimer of Hubbard Street, appears in front of a scrim curtain. From behind it, four men step forward and lift her. They then invert her so that she is hanging upside down, her legs forming a diamond above the men’s heads. She is wearing a filmy leaf camouflage costume, and as she hops about, we can’t help but think that she is playing a little leap frog-cum-possum game with them to trick them into thinking that she’s part of the inanimate surroundings.
The men can’t seem to tolerate her in a right side up position, and swing her upside down again. It looks like they might be planning a sexual attack, and then we see that no, we are going to see the opposite side of that coin instead: they are configuring themselves into a pedestal for her. They walk in a loping way between engagements, and, having been converted early in life to a fervent belief in the primacy of tends lié movement that connects steps, this reviewer confesses to not liking it when men, usually because they came to their training late in life, laze into loping between steps. It tends to summon the many meanings of the word “pedestrian.”
In a segment named for her, Meredith Webster walks through an ensemble of dancers, and separates them in the same way that, according to the Pentateuch, God (and in the film version, Cecil B. DeMille) separated the waters so that the Hebrew slaves could escape the Pharaoh’s soldiers who were hot on their trail, and who then drown when the miracle-powered sluices re-opened. The survivors dance joyful folksy steps, accompanied once again by Hebrew chants, as Webster makes shapes with her body that allow us to view unerring facility supported by a strong back, long reach, and fast dispatch. It’s not easy to be her: She pants and walks off stage.
Men run in, Alice Klock dances with them. Kevin Shannon is very fast, coming with the attack of a mountain lion. Johnny McMillan, a Hubbard Street MVP, is similarly gifted. Also strong in the attack, control, and extensions category is LINES’s Caroline Rocher.
There’s a kind of pogo stick segment where four men tethered to each other are joined by a fifth for the ups and downs. They then raise one dancer like a flag, and Courtney sits on him, obviously having been released from her binder of women. Women and flags have not enjoyed good karma since George Washington drafted Betsey Ross to design the one that over time has been stained with more blood than it has been steeped in honor.
Three men step into their spots. Cats are now snarling in the things-that-go-bump-in-the-night music score, succeeded by clapping and roaring. Then come angry voices, children’s voices, and babies crying. The soundscape competes for our attention with the steps, but not for long, because Keelan Whitmore strides into view, arms flying in and out of the path of the corps dancers who look up to him.
To lyrics which sound like “Oh death syncopate,” a funeral drum invites men to trade places with one another as they work their way across a sliding diagonal.
In the finale, Ricardo Zayas and Meredith Webster face each other. She runs, ending up lifted onto his dependable shoulder.
little mortal jump, by Hubbard Street’s Alejandro Cerrudo, was the evening’s ingenious piece de résistance. Artistic directors everywhere should give this young innovator a call!
The music that opens the piece is brassy street music, the kind that you’d expect to include a calliope if you heard it while wending your way through the open-air markets of Europe or South America. Jesse Bechard runs out of the audience and jumps onto the stage. He’s in suspenders, grey knickers and a grey shirt with a white collar, looking like a newsboy from the novel Ragtime. He does a few theatrical things and then jumps off the stage into the orchestra pit.
We think it may still be Bechard who descends the wall of a platform. The platform has a door and it opens and out comes Jessica Tong like a sideways jack-in-the-box, except that Tong is lithe, pliant and the perfect insouciant match for the bluesy lyrics that accompany her in a duet with Pablo Piantino. They dance to the lyrics, “It’s just a revelation from me to you.” Their revelation is such a pure bas-relief that it makes us think of the defined edges where puzzle pieces snap into place. The piece is in black, white and grey, and the gradations they assume can offer a range of sensibilities. Cerrudo dips into them to bevel stylized movements, arm rotations, foot grabs, and lip-sync lyrics now and then, but not so much that it becomes shtick. Corps dancers do fast-paced jazz floor rolls. Each is differently costumed in some variant of the grey-black-white chromatic, including prints, solids, ruffles and stripes.
The dancers work off of what the program notes describe as frames or obstacles, square or rectangular two-dimensional modular partitions, actually. One segment of the piece ends with two dancers impressed against the moving structure, stuck to its Velcro wall, exchanging “What do we do now?” glances, and peeling off the wall so that their outer costume remains part of it, and that part is orange against the, yes, grey, Velcro. We hear the rrrrippp, as they separate themselves from their obstacle. The obstacle is framed with bolts, that are really the kind of bare bulb lights that ring a mirror in a theater’s dressing room. As the lights flash on, the pair begins a slow duet in a mix of styles to music built from the Chinese scale. They strike poses that have a T’ai Chi aspect, ending with a crane pose.
In the next segment, two women lay on the floor and in twos four men enter the stage to rhythms that respond to Philip Glass-style rounds. Two from this group dance a circular pas de deux low to the floor. Four dancers push the frames and obstacles upstage, and to rainwater-like harp notes, each dancer does his or her own study in place. A woman in a black dress with white tracings, is center/center. She treats us to precision poses accompanied by the whistle of a violin and then becomes part of a couple, and the couple also shows perfect control of a series of isolations they do together. He sits on her outstretched second-position leg, and she does a nice dart from second position. With a lighting change, their pace slides into slo-mo with lifts, steps and turns, as he guides her. She is a larger-than-life force, and he is in her thrall as she gives each accent her attention and focus, bearing the kind of mien that tells us that she is hearing every note of the score. The pas de deux takes on the quality of underwater swimming as light drenches the couple.
This is the high standard of contemporary dancing we used to see in ODC that has slowly ebbed, sad to say. It’s a pleasure to see it wash back up on our shores from far-away Lake Michigan.
The evening closed with Too Beaucoup by Sharon Eyal and Gaï Behar, and it would be hard to come up with a better title, because it was just that: too much that at the same time offered way too little.
The gimmick that had the dancers dressed in white from head to toe, with white makeup and even white contact lenses requiring special fittings and training in their use by an eye doctor, stripped them of their identities, save for visible primary and secondary sex characteristics. That gimmick made some in the audience think about robots, extraterrestrials, and aliens, and alienation. In the robotic age, if we are a soul-less or shallow lot, it’s easy to believe that robots will become the übers and replace us wholesale, and choreographers wishing to make that belabored point again, put body suits of gold or silver or white or black or spotted or glitter on their dancers, and encumber them with mechanical movements. In this case, the choreography was a little lazier—not on the part of the dancers, who worked their “Does this bodysuit make my derrière look fat” [Answer: Yes!] tushes off. They did a heroic job of keeping up with the mindless steps, all derivative of social dance styles that were popular in clubs, hotels, and lounges during the sixties, seventies and eighties. The guilty paresseux were the choreographers, who gave this piece no structure whatsoever: there was no clear beginning, middle and end. It was a linear piece that seemed to grow by virtue of tacking too beaucoup more steps onto it. It was like going on a cheap date with a guy who won’t learn how to drive, so he takes you to your destination by bus. I liked the gimmick more than the choreography because it made me think: What if every student who applied to Ivy League colleges, or every worker or dancer, actor or musician who applied for a desirable job went to the interview or audition “whited out” in a similar getup? What if instead of a name, their application bore a number? What if their voices and inflections and foreign or regional accents could be channeled into a sound mixer so that they answered their questions in a Siri voice instead of their own. It might mean that selection would truly be based on what the candidate brings that day, and not what he or she symbolizes or represents socially or sociologically to those who adjudicate. So the larger question would be: Is this what it takes? Must we strip ourselves of our identities in order to level the playing field? That to me is a more interesting proposition than the specter or threat of an über-robot eclipse.
Toba Singer, author of “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City’s School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the “Charleston Gazette,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Dance Magazine,” “Dance Europe,” “City Paper,” “Provincetown Advocate,” “Voice of Dance,” CriticalDance.com, “InDance,” and “Dance Source Houston.”
Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses’ KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.