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Signifying Nothing 

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Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

at the Shubert Theatre, through May 11

By Laura Molzahn

Sometimes dance goes down easy--too easy. It can be served up as a theatrical delicacy, a gourmand's treat composed of beautiful people, spectacular movement, lively music, and intriguing designs. But I find the cream-puff approach to choreography increasingly unpalatable. Maybe it's my mood--on a recent trip to Israel I saw intense dances that, for political reasons, communicated strong feeling. If every 18-year-old is drafted into the army, then the issue of nonconformity is no longer intellectual; if a whole culture is energized by the imminent prospect of war, then the frenzied drive to dance of the Wilis in Giselle takes on new meaning. By contrast, much of American and European choreography seems unmotivated.

Both of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's new dances are entertaining and very well performed. One is better made than the other. But neither seems to have a strong reason for being.

Daniel Ezralow has always been an adept gagster, and he draws on that sense of humor in his new Lady Lost Found, a quintet set to traditional Irish and Scottish tunes arranged by Percy Grainger. Of course the sight of a man in a kilt (Mario Alberto Zambrano) is an easy laugh, and Ezralow expands the joke by making him a lively, slightly ludicrous figure whose self-absorbed flitting and doodling repels the two young women in the piece (Jennita Russo and Leisa Beemer). Ezralow also plays with the often-familiar music in a way that reminded me of Twyla Tharp's Brief Fling: when she introduced ballet dancers stepping lightly to Percy Grainger's "Country Gardens," the audience burst into startled laughter at the overdose of sweetness. Ezralow chooses orchestral, thoroughly digested versions of these songs and starts the work with a single dancer in silhouette in poses accenting her girlish figure and modesty; she even strolls with her hands clasped behind her back. The section set to the kitsch classic "Danny Boy" is surprisingly straight--a lyrical, romantic, even courtly dance for the two male-female couples.

Not surprisingly, Ezralow saves the most raucous song for the end. To the refrain of "What do we do with a drunken sailor?" the dancers swing from one another's arms, stagger, and fall--mostly the men, I should say; the women merely float on- and offstage. Though this section has some witty images--in a pile of three men, for instance, the one on top is swimming--it goes on long after its point has been made, and the unison dancing leads predictably to a predictable climax. The piece as a whole seems episodic, its structure entirely dictated by songs chosen at random. More important, it lacks even the pretense of intention: where other Ezralow pieces for HSDC, such as Super Straight Is Coming Down and Read My Hips, are also witty and playful, they manage to suggest some substratum of cultural or personal commentary, however obscure.

Nacho Duato's Na floresta ("The Forest") is much better made, with a clear structure and a glimmer of meaning. A piece for five men and five women set to Heitor Villa-Lobos's Floresta Amazonica (reinterpreted by Wagner Tiso), it was created by this Spanish choreographer in 1990 for Nederlands Dans Theater. Said to have been inspired by the beauty of the Amazonian rain forest, it does communicate reverence for nature, represented here by a painted backdrop of trees designed by Walter Nobbe. At the beginning and end of the piece, the dancers turn their backs on the audience to face the altar of the "natural world," finally saluting it by reaching for it with one arm.

Na floresta is a beautiful dance. In the opening, Duato creates an effect of transparency as two groups of dancers move together, then part, like ghosts briefly occupying the same space. Nor is the movement always delicate: in one nifty bit of partnering the men toss the women, facing outward, by their waists, and the women fling arms, legs, and heads forward, increasing their already dangerous momentum. The dance seems to progress from a state of almost totemic savagery to a more humanistic tenderness and sense of community: the opening section at times echoes Nijinsky's choreography for The Rite of Spring, as the dancers form ritualistic figures with their arms. One female dancer (Russo) surrounded by three other women performs a rigidly defined solo, a sequence for the arms, which she repeats when a male dancer (Zambrano) comes near her, then backs away. But later the dancers hold their hands beneath one cheek in the endearing universal symbol for sleep; later still a female dancer in a folk-dancey solo holds her skirt to her cheek in much the same tender way. By the final section the ten men and women have formed five couples, who come out one by one, then lie down together.

Na floresta isn't an altogether polite dance: the women's legs are often thrust wide apart in a gesture that seems to suggest sexuality and fecundity. There's a hint of emotional alienation when Zambrano backs away from Russo and her obsessive ritual movements. But overall Duato's work gives an impression of elegance that seems at odds with passion. Perhaps part of the problem is the prettiness of the hand-painted silk costumes, designed by Duato himself; the balletic style may be another factor. Whatever the reason, I couldn't shake off the sense that however pleasantly I was passing my time during this dance, that's all I was doing.

Of course there are those who say dance doesn't "mean" anything in the ordinary way. Still, some dances have an urgency about them, as if the choreographer had something important to communicate, however inchoate the subject or abstract the approach. And for sheer energy few dances beat Twyla Tharp's The Golden Section, which has been in HSDC's repertoire since 1991. Its tiny, shimmery gold costumes, dark gold lighting, and David Byrne score are very 80s, full of invincible ego (the dance was first produced in 1981). But its crazed momentum and quirks and its impossible partnering defy the limitations of any particular era. In this piece about virtuosity gone mad, the trick for the dancers is to skirt loss of control. This the Hubbard Streeters achieve with varying levels of success, but overall the piece whoops agreeably around the stage, providing a sense of structure, of beauty, and of intention, however inexpressible.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of "Na floresta" by Lois Greenfield.

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