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Walking In Her Footsteps 

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Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

at the Shubert Theatre,

through May 14

The dance world is so small that it can become incestuous. What's more, the relationship between choreographer and dancer tends to be very cozy, more intimate than the one between composer and musician or playwright and actor: the choreographer is often limited, inspired, or both by her dancers' special skills and characteristic ways of moving. When and if a dancer goes on to choreograph himself, it may be hard to separate his characteristic movement from hers. So it is with Kevin O'Day, who danced with Twyla Tharp for eight years and began choreographing a year or two ago: his first fully produced piece, Quartet for IV (And Sometimes One, Two or Three...), was commissioned by Mikhail Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project and performed here just last summer. Now it's being danced by Hubbard Street, who after five years of the Tharp Project are well trained in her movement.

O'Day's choreography suits Hubbard Street, perhaps better than it did the White Oak dancers: what I remember about their performance, despite the work's romantic overtones, is the confrontation between four strong personalities and athletic, assertive bodies. When Hubbard Street performed it, it was gentler and made more sense psychologically: the four had their own distinct personalities but also communicated a sense of relationship.

The piece is structured to reveal the dancers' characters first in broad strokes, then in finer detail. First one couple (Shan Bai and Joseph Mooradian), then the other (Rhonda Henriksen and Ron De Jesus), performs a duet that begins softly and progresses to more definite and often gestural movement. At first Bai's and Mooradian's arms are curved and poised, skimming the air; later he throws her out to the side, holding her at the waist, and when she's pulled up short she gives a little kick to punctuate the end of her trajectory. Henriksen and De Jesus at first look melty, unmuscled, especially Henriksen as De Jesus drops her sideways, turns her, dips her back. Later he sets her on his knee and squashes her head down into her shoulders with his hand as if pushing a clown back into a jack-in-the-box. But finally she shoves him away and then eludes him when he tries to embrace her.

The first couple are more confident, sunny, straightforward; the second more troubled, vulnerable, and strongly colored emotionally. The contrast is reinforced by subtle differences in their costumes: Mooradian's is a pale grayish purple, Bai's a pale pink; De Jesus's is a darker purple, Henriksen's a rosier, deeper pink. After the two duets each dancer has a solo, interspersed with brief duets, trios, even a quartet--the couples switch partners, and the women dance together briefly, then the men. But the solos are the most revealing: Henriksen's turns make her look strong but unsure of herself; Bai's slow motion, in contrast to her hard brightness in other sections, is almost dreamy; Mooradian, with his karate kicks and show-off beats, looks cocky and confident (and isn't as funny as O'Day in the same role); and De Jesus is perhaps the most dynamic of the bunch, by turns lyrical, sensual, and quick.

But I may be making Quartet for IV sound too stern--it's not moody but merry. The final section, a quartet, reprises the lively music from the first section and much of the choreography throughout. The string composition by Kevin Volans ("White Man Sleeps," played by the Kronos Quartet) sometimes sounds like barn-dance music, and the movement often has the carefree quality of a square dance: people switch partners and dance together or alone with a fine sense that things will all work out in the end. The way the men subtly dominate the women often comes across as humorous (holding a stiff, straight woman facedown like a board) or chivalrous (men crossing their arms to raise women by their shoulders from a supine position, the women rising joyously).

Admittedly, much of the merriment comes from the Tharpian quality of the movement. O'Day clearly has Tharp's style in his marrow: I saw traces of In the Upper Room (in which O'Day was the standout dancer), the little boxer's runs backward, the skips, the cocky walks and flexed feet, the trademark Tharp wriggle. I could have sworn I saw one of the HSDC performers briefly reincarnate a move by longtime Tharp dancer Sara Rudner.

It's inevitable that choreographers and dancers together produce a kind of alchemy. Yet I have mixed feelings about the derivative nature of Quartet for IV. I'm happy to see Tharp's lively, musical steps reinvented, transmuted, especially so expertly by choreographer and dancers alike. It may be too that HSDC, now well trained in Tharp's movement, makes O'Day's choreography look more Tharpian than it otherwise might. But what does O'Day have to offer of his own? This dance shows glimmers of difference from Tharp, and later works may be even more individual. I hope Hubbard Street finds out by sticking with O'Day, who's now an independent choreographer and guest artist with New York City Ballet. Or maybe I should say I hope he sticks with Hubbard Street, because the company is gaining new repertory only slowly and painfully.

Several of HSDC's recently commissioned works have been not only second-rate but, apparently, not popular with audiences: Margo Sappington's The Forging Ground (1993), Daniel Ezralow's In Praise of Shadows (1993), and Mauricio Wainrot's Perpetuum Mobile (1994) are nowhere to be seen during this unprecedented four-week run. Watching James Kudelka's Heroes (which premiered last August), I suspected it too would soon be dropped. I don't know what Kudelka thought he was doing--maybe reconciling balletic grace, machismo, vulnerability, and clean, assertive lines. Four men and one woman in gladiators' costumes dance before a few low-lying red lights, perhaps a dying campfire. At times the dancers resemble a reconnaissance party, at times an inexplicably militaristic chorus line. One gesture was repeated so often I thought I'd scream: the back of one hand to the eyes or forehead, the other arm held straight back, in what seemed a histrionic expression of anguish. It looked particularly silly when they did it leaping.

Old favorites fared much better on the two programs I saw: Ezralow's stylish, sensual Read My Hips, in which the wrestling duet, performed by Alberto Arias and Patrick Mullaney, holds up particularly well; Margo Sappington's plush, intricate pas de deux Mirage (a difficult piece precisely performed by Josef Patrick and Christine Carrillo); and Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs, with its appealing mix of humor, romance, and athletic grace.

It could be that Hubbard Street is biding its time and saving its pennies: reportedly Tharp will set her 1983 Fait Accompli on the company soon and create three new pieces for HSDC by 1997. Cross your fingers. And while you're at it, put O'Day on the wish list too.

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

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