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HUBBARD STREET DANCE CHICAGO

at the Shubert Theatre, through April 24

I spent a good part of the summer of 1990 hanging around the Hubbard Street studios, watching the dancers rehearse Twyla Tharp's The Fugue and Sue's Leg. I wrote my story, but that wasn't the end of it, because ever since then I've felt that Hubbard Street was my baby. And a lot of other people feel the same way. Fred Astaire fell in love with the group when he watched them on TV. Media folks can't find terms sufficiently glowing. And funders have not been lacking--witness the abundant crowd in tuxes and sparkly dresses at the Shubert on opening night.

It isn't a trick. We haven't all been hoodwinked. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago--whatever that might be--is as likable as a dog that falls all over itself to get your attention and affection. Of course HSDC is technically proficient, but so are lots of troupes. The important thing is that the dancers want to please us. Or they appear to want to, which is all that's important in the world of theater.

But what is Hubbard Street? With the retirement of Claire Bataille, in 1992, none of the original dancers remain. The troupe doesn't have a high turnover, but it does have some (the dance world, with its low pay, short careers, and intense working conditions, is notoriously fluid). Since the dancers move on and the company's choreography is eclectic, the answer has to be that Hubbard Street is the people who run it. Gail Kalver, general manager since 1984, is no clock puncher: she's well-known for the generous way she gives her time to other organizations, notably the Chicago Dance Coalition. And Warren Conover, former soloist with American Ballet Theatre and HSDC ballet master since 1985, is known for his exacting standards. Certainly these two have something to do with Hubbard Street's success, but the man who hired them--Lou Conte--most likely has more.

Conte, who founded Hubbard Street in 1977, has deep roots in musical theater, having performed in such Broadway hits as Cabaret, Mame, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. But though the form that attracts Conte is extroverted and basically commercial--people don't pay top dollar on Broadway to watch an artist play out his angst--the DuQuoin native is something of a shy country boy too (my husband once saw him during intermission wandering around the top floor of the Civic Theatre as if hiding from the opening-night crowd). Conte's an unusual combination of aw-shucks guy and clever businessman, but more important he's a brilliant showman, with a knack for hiring dancers who will shine onstage, who have that special luster no amount of training can give. Then he polishes their skills to produce an even higher shine. Conte--who hasn't choreographed a piece for Hubbard Street since 1987--makes dancers, not dances.

That means Hubbard Street is a company ripe for the pickin' for outside choreographers, who in the last several years have provided most of its repertoire. And one reason Hubbard Street is my baby is Twyla Tharp: she's not only a great choreographer but a perfect match with Hubbard Street, because she's a showman too. There's a surprising resemblance between Conte's trademark dance, The 40s, and something like Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs, which also evokes the look and feel of a certain era. Like Conte, Tharp may be sly, but she's never coy--whatever she's got is right out there, no subtext. And her basic impulse, like his, is to entertain, which is what makes her dances riveting even when you've seen them over and over. Her pride won't let her repeat herself, and she certainly won't repeat other people.

Take Tharp's The Golden Section, performed on opening night. One of its big crowd-pleasing bits is the way dancers are tossed like beach balls into the wings. That's pretty exciting, but Tharp can't leave it at that--she has the dancers get thrown back onstage too. And at the end, when a woman vaults into the wings using a crouching dancer as a springboard, her trailing leg appears to just hang in midair; then the "springboard" comes briefly to life, his complicit grin teasing out our own sense of surprise and delight before the lights come down. Tharp's motto isn't exactly "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry," but The Golden Section's energy and bravado are enough to bring tears to your eyes.

Mauricio Wainrot's Perpetuum Mobile, the only premiere on the HSDC Spring Festival of Dance programs, is another story. Not that it's a bad dance--I liked it, and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra score is pleasantly quirky--but it inhabits an uncomfortable space between pure entertainment and artistic statement. Press materials state that "Wainrot created this piece purely for the sake of movement to showcase the unparalleled technique of the HSDC dancers." I buy that--up to a point. The idea expressed in the title ("perpetual motion") is carried through in some of the choreography, particularly the rocking motions of arms and of the dancers back and forth on the stage. The first section sometimes resembles an Irish jig, and the second is hypnotically rhythmic, echoing the near monotony of this section's "phone music," with its little beeps and screeches. But the two following sections seem something other than movement for movement's sake. The third is a solo for the delicate, lyrical Shan Bai, who sweeps through motions too fully felt to be mere technical fireworks. The way she drops her head, then her torso way back while kneeling is put in context by the fourth section: she's dancing a tango by herself, and the two men in the fourth section dance it together.

We can't watch two men hold hands, clasp each other around the waist and shoulders, and leap into each other's arms without thinking they're gay. The music at this point is feeling, almost sad, and there's a strong current of emotional energy between Patrick Mullaney and Ron De Jesus: at one point one man pushes the other roughly to the floor and tries to jump him, but the other rolls away. Eavesdropping on the people behind me, I learned that in Argentina (where Wainrot was born) the tango was originally a dance for men--a fact Wainrot passed on to funders at an open rehearsal. But his little gloss doesn't explain what this section is doing in the dance or the emotional resonance it has.

Several of HSDC's most recent dances have dealt with the relations between men, notably Margo Sappington's ill-begotten The Forging Ground and Daniel Ezralow's In Praise of Shadows (which he dedicated to dancer Christopher Gillis, who died of AIDS). I see nothing wrong with HSDC performing a well-made dance genuinely exploring the issues of AIDS or gay sexuality, though these works don't fill that bill. And even though the male tango in Wainrot's dance is full of feeling, Perpetuum Mobile doesn't fill the bill either. Nor does it have the pizzazz, the inventive energy, to be entertaining as pure dance the way Tharp's works are. Like the works of Ezralow, it's annoyingly vacant at its center, teasing us with a vaguely stylish surface and intimations of a meaning that just isn't there.

The Hubbard Street dancers are nothing if not stylish, which is what carries their performances no matter how ordinary the dance. But too often dances are ordinary when the choreographers are hired guns. Even the Tharp works--and there are now four of them in the repertoire, which is great--were not made for HSDC but for her own troupe. So when is Tharp going to make a piece for Hubbard Street? How is this wonderful company, my baby and the baby of many other well-wishers, going to get the dances it deserves?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Eileen Glenn.

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