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A Slap in the Face 

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HUBBARD STREET DANCE COMPANY

at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

April 28-30 and May 4-7

Hubbard Street's hallmarks are a sassy mood, stylish choreography, and a silky-smooth yet piston-hard technique. It's a glossy look, with a high finish and bright colors: the dance comes in a gorgeous package. Hubbard Street's a crowd-pleaser. In its signature piece by founder Lou Conte, The 40s, the dancers look out at the audience, and they seem to say that whatever they do is done for our pleasure.

Which is what makes it so odd to see them doing Daniel Ezralow's Super Straight Is Coming Down. This dance, created for Hubbard Street, is one of two Chicago premieres that the company is presenting this spring at the Civic Center, and it's subversive. It's a slap in the audience's face--and a breath of fresh air. The original music, by Tom Willens, booms and squeaks and is silent at odd times. The choreography is sometimes alienated and expressionless, at other times violent. Super Straight has a generally unfinished feel: the dancing is necessarily a little rough-and-tumble because it's so close to the ground. and the piece as a whole seems an open-ended meditation on a subject that's never specified (unlike Lynne Taylor-Corbett's Appearances, also on the program, which sets out to confuse sex roles and does so relentlessly).

As Super Straight opens, the five dancers (Alberto Arias, Frank Chaves, Sandi Cooksey, Ron De Jesus, and Lynn Sheppard) can be dimly seen upstage. Then onstage spotlights, one behind each dancer, come up slowly to reveal that they're standing in clear plastic bags. Are these crime victims encased in body bags? We can see their 50s-style clothes--suits for the three men, a prim blouse and skirt for one woman, an off-the-shoulder black dress for the other: are these people freeze-dried specimens from that earlier era, which so resembles our own? One by one they emerge from their bags, dropping them in front of the lights like transparent snakes' skins sloughed off--icy sculptures that set the tone for what follows.

The dancers walk slowly toward us, alternately kicking high and self-protectively crossing their arms in front of their faces. As the dance progresses, there always seems to be an odd man out: a soloist who moves slowly while the others are exuberant, or who moves frenetically while the others turn inward, dragging and pensive. Or a dancer who hits the floor and stays there motionless for what seems a long time, breathing audibly. Or hits the floor and writhes. Many moves suggest alienation: the dancers perform a springy pony step, but their torsos and heads are completely expressionless, arms hanging and hands dangling, not held rigid and yet not allowed their natural rebound either. The dancers pair off, and one of each pair attacks the air with kicks and punches: the other clasps the "attacker," but later attacks the air him- or herself.

Is this dance about something? I don't know, and I'm not sure I want to know. At times I thought the dancers' connections with each other, coupled with the occasional drop of a dancer to the floor, connoted infection, possibly, the spread of AIDS. Surely the dancers' slowly raised, meaningful gaze out to the audience at the end was meant to include us in some vision, or to accuse.

But what's brilliant about Super Straight is simply the dancing, often as abrupt and surprising, as new, as a small child's unnervingly accurate observation. The dancers form bridges of their bodies and peer at us upside down, their arms thrown out on the floor and crooked to form ancillary bridges. Much of the dance is on or near the ground: the dancers seem to leap from and land on their knees, or they "leap" in a near-prone position, twisting their torsos while they lean on their elbows and throw their legs from side to side. In the exuberant finale, the men throw the women straight up, spinning them like airborne tops.

Rasa, the other premiere, is more in the typical Hubbard Street vein--much more vertical, much more jazzy--which is not surprising since choreographer Ron De Jesus has been a Hubbard Street dancer for four years. This ambitious three-section work for seven dancers (Arias, Chaves, De Jesus, Shannon Mitchell, Daniela Panessa, Josef Patrick, and Sheppard) has an East-meets-West theme. The first two musical selections are by Ravi Shankar, the third by Shakti playing with John McLaughlin. The costumes, designed by De Jesus, blend East and West: the three women wear gold spangled unitards, while the men luxuriate in black pantaloons with gold bands and black leather harnesses for their bare torsos.

Rasa is notable for its fluid shifts, from Oriental-looking poses to Western-style kicks and leaps (which dominate the ending). And it moves its seven dancers fluidly on- and offstage to create a steady flow of solos, duets, trios, and quartets. But I liked best its use of the Eastern music. In the opening, the dancer flicks her hands and wrists to the music's clicks. The percussion and flute of the first section create a wonderful rhythm and counterrhythm, with complex transitions from one bit to the next that the dancers simply glide right through. A man sweeps a woman in a low circle around him, her legs in attitude almost grazing the floor, during a long, low, breathy flute sound. In the final section, the women's developpes pierce the air just as the fiddle hits its highest note. The starry backdrop (lighting by Todd Clark) recalls Gerald Arpino's Round of Angels, but Rasa by no means gives the same impression of stuffy self-importance.

Georgia, a 1987 work by Lou Conte to the recording by Willie Nelson, is a deceptive piece of work--the minute it starts to look obvious, Conte pulls the rug out from under it. It was magnificently danced by De Jesus and Claire Bataille. What struck me about Bataille's dancing (and that of some of the other women in other dances) was her control of the small muscles, the small gestures.

The Hubbard Street dancers are so professional they can make schlock look good. Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck's dancing in Lynne Taylor-Corbett's Diary was the piece's salvation: it is sentimental in concept--it recalls an idyllic childhood--and in execution. One nice feature, however, is the onstage pianist and singer, Judith Lander, who for Hilsabeck's solo sings a song about a child learning to sing.

The solo's opening pose is obvious, the dancer's hands crossed in quintessential modesty and simplicity before her; and the later bursts of the hand and simultaneous kicks are perfectly synchronized with the bursts of the song. But Hilsabeck has all the asymmetrical nuances of shoulders and eyebrows down so perfectly, and musically she's so right on the money, that you can only watch transfixed. And when the singer takes a breath, Hilsabeck briefly rounds her back in a small, magical way that somehow connects song with the everyday act of breathing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.

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