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The final ten days of the 2004 American Dance Festival offered a succession of treats and surprises. Hard on the heels of the bizarre and ferocious Argentinean company Krapp came the dynamic Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, with their sleek and beautiful athleticism. For pure enjoyment, Hubbard Street had no match this season.
Like the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Hubbard Street is a numerous, well-established and highly disciplined troupe. But it is different in many other ways. One would not, for instance, think for a moment that Hubbard Street was from New York. Its style and attitude are those of the City of Big Shoulders - full of zest and bounce and gumption. And unlike the Paul Taylor company, Hubbard Street applies its interpretive power to the works of a wide range of choreographers. The company drew a large, enthusiastic crowd to Page Auditorium on July 15, the first evening of the three-night run.
The program opened with an untitled work choreographed by Daniel Ezralow to music by David Lang. A stage full of dancers in gray pinstripes and white shirts bob straight up and down, their rigid forms facing straight front. The lines change places, the dancers moving backward, but always facing front. A few break loose, wrenching from the pattern but not the motion. Then more escape, and the jackets come off. The dancing becomes wilder; we segue to a strobe-lit club, or possibly another room in hell. Arrows of light pierce the space from above. The rumpled souls slump to the floor, painfully rising again, and again and again slump and rise. One rises to take on the role of conductor, exhorting the others to greater effort, but eventually all go down for the count. The final scene is tender, elegiac. Two dancers lift and hold their partners; all the others raise and lower their arms like wings. The couples change position, so that one of each pair is on the floor and the other leaning over like a reflection, and they join in the wing motions, which are like breathing made visible. It was almost impossibly redemptive, like seeing a great heron rise from the dawn mist.
Putting such an ambitious, energetic and moving piece first signaled the depth and strength of Hubbard Street's repertory - and the company's confidence. When you start with a showstopper, how do you go on?
In this case, it was with a spectacular duet, Cor Perdut (Lost Heart). Choreographed by Nacho Duato, it was set to almost hypnotic music, Bir Demet Yesemen , composed by J. Berberian and arranged and sung by the Majorcan vocalist Maria del Mar Bonet. Both music and choreography were great, and the dancing, by Shannon Alvis and Jamy Meek, was magnificent. Their timing could not have been better. He was bare-chested; she swirled a flame-orange gown. They raced fleetly across the stage, pursuing, evading, connecting. There were lots of lifts and turns, all as ecstatic and sultry as any newly enamoured lover could desire. It was a gorgeous piece.
Tabula Rasa was not gorgeous, but it was mesmerizing. Choreographed by Ohad Naharin to wonderful mystical music by Arvo Pärt, it was an engrossing meditation on loss. I think. The piece was full of sequences that had to do with connecting/missing and avoiding/joining, but the persistent emotional undercurrent seemed to be about loss, irremediable loss. The dance's most memorable image was toward the end. The dancers emerge from the wing, one by one, moving in a slow swaying glide sideways until they are strung out in a line across the stage. Evenly spaced and making identical movements, they seem remote-controlled - controlled by forces outside the individual. Until one simply stops. Then the next dancer bumps into the stopped person, and a new way of being begins, one that involves personal choice.
After the mysteries of Tabula Rasa , Rooster , choreographed by Christopher Bruce, was a little lightweight, but lots of fun. I am still somewhat unnerved by Rolling Stones songs having become 20th century classical music, but so it is. Rarely am I in such a good position to judge the dancing vis-à-vis the music as I was with these early Stones songs, from "Lil' Red Rooster" on through to "Sympathy for the Devil." Generally speaking the dances and the dancers were better with the sweeter songs like "Lady Jane," "As Tears Go By," and "Ruby Tuesday" (lovely), and less satisfactory with the darker tunes like "Paint it Black" and "Sympathy for the Devil" that should be danced with dirty, barely controlled passion. There was a breath of ironic condescension in the choreography. And the dancers were working at a disadvantage: the music was not cranked up nearly loud enough.
Nobody struggled with that condition during the International Choreographers Commissioning Program in Reynolds Theater on July 19. There was plenty of volume. The ICCP is one of the great things about ADF. Each year a few young choreographers are commissioned to create works on the ADF students, and these are performed at the end of the school session. One expects them to be experimental and rough around the edges, but fresh and vital. Often, these young choreographers appear on the main ADF schedule in another year or two and some, like Shen Wei, go on to become favorites of the festival.
The first piece on this year's program, unfortunately, was very weak. Choreographer Olga Pona presented A Little Bit of Nostalgia , and it was a mushy mess, an indigestible mix of dance, theater, video - and music that had nothing to do with the above. After the full-blown weirdness of the Russian Festival, this piece looked weakly derivative.
The second work, Red, by Toru Shimazaki, however, was fantastic. This was real dance, movement and music interlocked, complemented by powerful visual design, lighting and costuming. The dancers were very accomplished and completely up to the thrusting, rhythmic music by René Aubry. The first section involved a lot of fine arm work - reaching, jabbing - and high-speed spinning. The second section introduced more fluid movements. The dancers entwined and rolled over and off each other, passing under and over arms and legs. There were images of sex and sex clubs, everyone going at pleasure with a violent passion. After all the clean choreography and crisp movement, the ending was a disappointment, rather a cop-out. They just danced until they dropped, in messy little heaps. That may have suited the subject, but visually it was off-kilter and did not satisfy. However, let's hope we see more by Toru Shimazaki next year.
I'll say the same for Miguel Robles, choreographer of Something Beneath. Whoa! These Argentineans don't mess around: they like to dance . The piece begins with several red-haired girls in little red skirts and boys' white shirts - sloe-eyed and raffish, cheerleaders gone bad. Then the boys come on like West Side Story and we get a Jerome Robbins-type dance. Robles enters, doing a crazy little syncopated thing - stamp, drag, brush - while keeping his upper body still and straight. Suddenly it all gets more tribal. Shirts come open and flop around. Robles is down on the stage, making love to a woman, while the tribe goes wild. Stamp, stamp, and the shirts come off. Music down. The dancers walk away, still shaking that thing. Wow.
The season closed out with Batsheva Dance Company from Israel performing Deca Dance by their resident choreographer Ohad Naharin, whose Tabula Rasa had been performed by Hubbard Street the previous week. Deca Dance is an unusual kind of retrospective, comprising as it does excerpts from nine earlier dances, made between 1985 and 2001. The music ranged over centuries, continents and conceptions; it included both Dean Martin and Beethoven as well as The Ventures and Habib Alla Jamal. The dances from which the excerpts came were listed in the program, but there is not much point in mentioning their names, as they were not necessarily in the order of performance. Ohad Naharin's biography in the program says only that NOTHING IS PERMANENT.
Be that as it may, any artist capable of ranging so far stylistically while remaining focused on his two or three crucial topics will have a place in history. I had been horrified by the idea of jumbling together bits from different dances - I longed to see each one whole, but it worked remarkably well in Page on July 22. It worked because the dancers were extraordinary, but even more because Naharin has these abiding concerns.
And what are they? The relation of the individual to the group; the possibilities for love; freedom. These various dances looked in different ways at the tyranny of power and ways that the powerless might find strength and the single human might assert individuality. They looked at the tyranny of the group and at how the lonely person might form a group. They looked at the strictures and the transcendence of love. They looked at the need for pleasure and beauty. In the balance of opposing forces, whether spiritual or temporal, they looked for morality, for a buoyant vitality, for liberty. I am grateful for this unabashed declaration of values, moral and aesthetic. Closing the festival with this work was a statement in itself.