Advance word on Chicago's Hubbard Street Dance Company was that it consistently thrills audiences. The troupe's Washington debut last night at the Eisenhower Theater, in a presentation by the Kennedy Center, made the point again in spades. The crowd was delirious with delight from start to finish, and greeted the final curtain with a rousing standing ovation.
The enthusiasm is easy enough to comprehend. The company's 14 dancers are handsome, sleek, fast, svelte and powerful. Each one is a brilliant technician, but their dancing goes beyond virtuosity to a kind of radiant, companionable verve that washes across the house like roaring surf.
It would be hard also to name many other dance troupes whose performances are so thoroughly polished -- pacing, rhythm, phrasing, accents, dynamics, line, everything looks flawless. Despite the perfection, and the obsessive, uncompromising labor that one knows must go into the making of it, nothing looks drilled. The dancers make all that they do seem fresh, alive, spontaneous, and their own joy in dancing is irresistibly contagious. The repertory they displayed, moreover, was almost entirely sunny, accessible and high-spirited.
If I add at the outset that nevertheless the program was disappointing -- for reasons I'll come to -- this isn't to say that I was immune to the company's appeal; far from it. Still, it seems to me there are ways in which the troupe is shortchanging itself and its audience.
The company was established in 1977 by artistic director Lou Conte, a former dancer of vast Broadway experience. For the first five years of the troupe's existence, Conte himself supplied almost all the choreography, along with occasional input from Assistant Artistic Director Claire Bataille. But by 1982, he began to invite other choreographers to contribute or create works. The Kennedy Center program contained pieces, for example, by Richard Levi, Daniel Ezralow and Margo Sappington, along with several by Bataille and Conte.
By now, too, the company, which tours widely in this country, has also become a world traveler. At intermission, I spoke with Warren Conover, who had an extremely distinguished career as a dancer himself, ending with more than a dozen years at American Ballet Theatre, and who is now Hubbard's ballet master. He said the troupe's dancers are on a 52-week contract, with six weeks of paid vacation -- an astonishing achievement among American companies. A couple of months ago, too, the company announced an important new liaison with choreographer Twyla Tharp, who will stage at least three of her works exclusively for Hubbard -- in itself a remarkable coup.
The most offbeat work of the evening was Ezralow's new 25-minute group work "Read My Hips" -- the title had a certain serendipitous appropriateness, what with George Bush in attendance at "Starlight Express" in the neighboring Opera House last night. The piece opens with the sound of an explosion, and a blinding strobe flash on a darkened stage. Sensationalism of various sorts pops up repeatedly thereafter. When a female soloist finishes a prestissimo whiplash sequence by collapsing to the floor, for instance, the rest of the cast emerges from the wings to applaud her supine form, only to retreat in mock embarrassment in reaction to audience laughter.
The dancers are initially in dark tops and bottoms, with spookily reddened eyes, but as the piece proceeds, layers of clothing are discarded until at the end men and women are down to underwear. One passage is a flamboyant wrestling match for a pair of men. In another, a couple of soloists tread precariously along the backs of their crawling fellow dancers and end up in stylized copulation at the center of an ensemble circle. Michel Colombier's electronic score is by turns ominous, satirical and apocalyptic.
The whole work is full of clever touches and eccentric shapes, and the prevailing sense of bizarre ritual never lapses. But in the end, it doesn't seem to add up to more than an overcrowded bag of tricks -- tricks for the sake of trickiness.
The slenderest offerings were the smaller combinations -- a pair of duets, "Georgia," by Conte, and "Mae," by Levi, which were excerpted from the full-length "Rose From the Blues"; and Sappington's rather treacly duo "Mirage," to music by Vaughan Williams. All three were neatly crafted but on the hackneyed side -- beautifully danced, like everything on the program, but forgettable. Company member Ron De Jesus's more ambitious septet "Shakti," to music by Ravi Shankar and John McLaughlin, wraps its acrobatics in some quasi-exotic trappings but never gets beyond a bland picturesqueness.
The most satisfying parts of the program were the big ensemble numbers that opened and closed the evening -- "Line Drive," created by Conte and Bataille in 1982 and amounting to the ultimate aerobic workout, and Conte's 1978 signature piece, "The 40's," a beguiling evocation of big band era jitterbugging -- with the dancers in black silk vests, bow ties and trousers, sporting canes and bowlers -- in which the infectiousness of the dancers and Conte's show biz canniness are splendidly conjoined.
If an evening of dance that is unremittingly wholesome, cloudless, easy and safe is all you ask, you won't share my reservation about Hubbard, which is that given the company's superabundance of dexterity and stylistic versatility, there ought to be more challenge, depth and audacity in its repertory. The advent of Tharp will no doubt help, but the company is strong enough, and its popularity sufficiently secure, to warrant taking even more chances on choreography of a grittier, more probing character.