At Kennedy Center, Hubbard Street dance troupe keeps audience engaged, surprised and inquisitive

Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic October 18, 2013

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s program began with a gasp. The lights had just dimmed Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater when one of the dancers sprinted down the aisle in his suspenders and socks, a streak of vintage-chic.

One swift pounce and he was on the stage, twisting himself around with great vigor and wit to a jaunty, vaguely French-chanson-style piano tune. His head went one way, his legs another, his torso rippled; he was a human Slinky. So clever, such fun.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

Suddenly, our man spun around, took a flying leap toward us and . . . oh! The lights blacked out and he was swallowed up, mid-jump, in darkness. Yet in our imaginations he was ever-airborne, soaring out into the audience whence he came.

There was terrific texture to this piece, “Little mortal jump” by Alejandro Cerrudo, and throughout Hubbard Street’s program. By texture I mean artistic elements other than the look and feel of the dancing, in this case the novel, interesting musical choices; bold, provocative set design; and a stimulating theatrical experience that wasn’t always confined to the stage.

It’s all well and good for a dance concert to offer variety in an evening. Most troupes aim to do so, and the typical program will feature an array of emotional tones — lighthearted fun mixed in with the serious works — and a range of cast sizes. But what was unusual about Hubbard Street’s program, which repeats Saturday, was the combination of so many different elements that kept you constantly engaged, surprised and inquisitive. Each work was a distinct feat of the imagination, a complete world in and of itself, and yet taken as a whole the evening had a kind of prickly coherence that felt fresh and alive.

When Robyn Mineko Williams’s “Fluence” ended in a shower of soap bubbles, it felt like a cheesy off-note to what had been taut, stylish and up-to-the-minute. Yet after the curtain call, in the half-light of a brief pause before the next work, the bubbles took on a life of their own, drifting over the heads of the audience members. One delicate sphere, improbably intact after its voyage halfway up the seats, bobbed gracefully at my elbow. You couldn’t help but be charmed.

In an evening of many such charms, “Fluence,” with original music by Robert F. Haynes, was the most inventive. Here was a dance vocabulary that looked like none other, deployed with a knowing feel for visual rhythm and counterpoint. Williams is a former Hubbard Street dancer, and she undoubtedly learned much from the examples set by this modern-dance company’s roster of guest choreographers. But “Fluence” reminded me of a piece by a different company: “loopdiver” by Troika Ranch, a 2009 work that had its dancers replicating the look of “looped” computerized visual segments, with their endless repetitions and stutters.

In “Fluence,” hands or feet vibrated into blurs, and bodies stretched into linear streaks, like chewing gum. The aesthetic worked; computerish sleekness is a good look for a dancer. Soloists split off as the ensemble continued in a pack or splintered into subsets that constantly reshuffled. The lone dancer held the eye, but the group provided added texture with a subtly shifting surface.

Sometimes texture came from, well, nothing at all. Cerrudo’s “PACOPEPEPLUTO” was a series of solos to Dean Martin songs danced by three naked men. They weren’t only naked — after all, we’re a greedy lot, we dancegoers, and demand more than that — they were also funny. And gorgeous. But mostly funny. This piece is a tiny jewel box, and Cerrudo knew exactly when to snap it shut.

Coming at the tail end of a long, rich program, Mats Ek’s “Casi-Casa” didn’t get the setup it deserved. Still, it was good to see the surrealist touches and astute dramatic emphasis of this Swedish choreographer. In this testy tribute to domestic activity, the props included vacuum cleaners, a wonderfully curvaceous Nordic-style wood chair and a smoking oven. Why was it smoking? When one of the dancers pulled a charred baby doll out of it, we weren’t far from Stieg Larsson territory. Not the usual tone for a dance, but on this program, we’d been primed to expect the unexpected.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

Continues 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org

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