There is a rough poignancy to some of the early Rolling Stones music. Think of the wistfulness in "Ruby Tuesday," the dulcimer-enhanced mystique of "Lady Jane," the bitter resignation in "As Tears Go By." It was this intimate dimension of the mighty, mouthy Mick Jagger -- risque, sure, but also tender -- that was so cleverly exploited in "Rooster," a string of dances set to Stones tunes and performed Tuesday night by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago at Wolf Trap.
Setting concert dance to rock music has long been fashionable; works linked to music by Sting, George Harrison and Billy Joel have come and gone. But rarely have the results been as successful as in "Rooster," created in 1991 by British choreographer Christopher Bruce. He has a deft hand with the telling gesture, the physical fillip that recurs as a motif without becoming tired and overused. The dancing was itself of interest, not just for punchy tricks that matched the rock rhythms but for its own fine construction and easy sense of humor.
Courtship and capture were Bruce's themes, with the men strutting and grooming themselves in obtuse self-importance. For all their efforts they're frequently outmaneuvered by the ladies, but then, what else is new?
Newness wasn't the selling point here, yet the work still felt fresh. It was a nostalgic treat to hear that juicier, more supple sound from the Stones, as opposed to their later, more aggressive style, and the dancers responded with character and wit. There was a bit of a minuet for "Lady Jane," while "Not Fade Away" suggested a jitterbug.
The costumes evoked the look of the 1960s, when these songs were recorded, with the men in tight slacks and velvet jackets and the women in sleeveless shifts.
Much of "Rooster's" appeal was in not taking itself too seriously. You couldn't say the same for Lar Lubovitch's "Love Stories": It milked the dancers' casual ease with the trickiest of couplings, but their slippery grace couldn't overcome its drawbacks. As in "Rooster," this work took the form of romantic encounters set to various songs, this time mood-setting standards ("Prelude to a Kiss," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes") in recordings by Chicago-based jazz singer Kurt Elling. Elling wants us to know just how bruised he's been and how deeply bored he's become. He rasps, he moans, he deadens his phrases like nobody's business, but he is all ache and no heart. (One began to muse, what might Jagger do for "Nature Boy"?)
Underscoring Elling's delivery, the dancers wore gunmetal gray and black and the lights were morosely low. It's a dismal view of love, though Lubovitch dots the work with surprises, as when a man upends his partner, her legs sky high and hips on his shoulder, then smooth as a sigh he lowers her into his arms for a few elegant waltz steps, as serenely as if they were at a tea dance. But many of the minidramas are simply corny -- we see an awful lot of in-your-face rebukes and shattering rejections, symbolically written in boldface and highlighted and underlined in red -- which makes the dancing feel as flat as Elling's vocals.
Nacho Duato's "Gnawa" boasts a better match of musical accompaniment and movement. There's an out-of-the-bush, rainforesty feel to the recordings by an assortment of artists, with reedy pipes, soft strings and hushed drums, and there's a complementary sensual, ritualistic feel to the dancing. You see flashes of West African steps and images of prowling animals; one woman flicks her legs between those of her partner like tongues of flame. As in many of his other works, however, Duato can't sustain the sense of intrigue, nor can he develop his movement ideas into anything other than a series of arresting snapshots.