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Flash Review 1, 10-4: Born Again
Vincent's New Frontiers for Hubbard St.

By Asimina Chremos
Copyright 2000 Asimina Chremos

CHICAGO -- Oh, the excitement of opening night! The Cadillac Palace Theatre was abuzz with expectant energy on this rainy, stormy Tuesday night for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's first hometown engagement since Jim Vincent took over artistic directorship of the company from its founder, Lou Conte. The program featured two premieres: "Split" by Trey McIntyre and "Minus 16" by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.

JirÔ Kylian's "Petit Mort," danced to delicious passages from Mozart piano concertos 21 and 23, opened the evening. This work, premiered by Nederlands Dance Theater in 1991, has been in the Hubbard rep since March (and is part of "The Kylian Project Phase I," funded by the Sara Lee Foundation.) When Hubbard Street originally performed this work, Dance Insider Selene Carter found the dancers' plastic smiles antithetical to the eroticism of the choreography. (See Flash Review 1, 4-17: Smile, Now!)

Vincent is a former member of NDT and his influence is apparent in the newfound ease and fluidity that the dancers brought to this elegant, classical but very modernly sexy dance of off-duty warriors and their consorts. It was pure pleasure to absorb the delicately performed unison, intricate duets and group passages. What shone through in this piece was Kylian's sensibility, a kind of swooning sentimentality made pure by intellect, musicality, and gentle humor.

Following an early intermission, superstar boy hero Darren Cherry took the stage for an opening solo in the world premiere of "Split," performed to a recording of Art Blakey's all-percussion piece "Split Skins." Red-headed Cherry is a dancer of modest demeanor and explosive talent. With his willowy body, extra-fluid spine, and light soundless jumps that float up like Marilyn Monroe's skirt in a puff of wind, Cherry is one to watch. Gregory Sample, who performs with an intriguing mix of irony and sincerity, entered with another solo, fluttering his hand over his head like a feather, an idea, a hello. The two were joined by the confident and playful Sandi Cooksey for a wiggly trio, all bouncing around merrily to Blakey's relentlessly joyful drum music. Mary Nesvadba, Steve Coutereel, and Shannon Alvis rounded out the cast with elan and enthusiasm.

The dance phrases employed in "Split" were intense and layered. Multi-dimensional, multi-referential to jazz, ballet, post-mod, etcetera; the movements were complex and full of ideas. In many ways this was a primo Hubbard St. piece; the dancers looked great and they sold us the jazzy-modern fun good time with conviction. However, these elements were organized into a dance that was, in my experience, less than the sum of its parts.

I wonder what a change of wardrobe could do for this work. All the men wore the same blue jeans, white socks, and short-sleeved button-down shirts; the women all had on similarly colored pastel pedal pushers, decorated sleeveless tops and flat ballet shoes over bobby socks. This gave the piece a sort of retro swing dance feel, which harkens to the "exploration of popular dance" referred to in the press release, but the uniform-like costumes undermined the individuality of the dancers and reflected a superficiality of the overall vision. I feel there is more to McIntyre's artistry, creativity and depth than was made apparent in this work.

Mary Nesvadba and Jamy Meek were outstanding in Harrison McEldowney's humorous "Group Therapy," a standard rep piece of Hubbard's for the past year or so. They brought skill and sophistication to bear in their duet, playing a dysfunctional couple where he sneezes and she falls asleep. I swear Nesvadba could feign falling asleep mid-jump if the choreography called for it. Meek's self-effacing but extremely adept partnering took this silly "bit" well beyond good technique and a good joke, to a higher level of absurdity and delight.

Standing outside during the second intermission, marveling at the rain, I saw people getting ready to leave the theater, having had their full dose of culture for the night, I suppose. I tried to stop them. You have to stay for Ohad's piece! I implored.

Of course, "Minus 16," in its U.S. premiere, rocked the house. This was a rich, tragic, and joyful work. It was so awesome to see the dancers stretching themselves into improvisation and choreography that had not an ounce of cute, and even better to see the Midwest audience eating it up, loving it, and also being stretched. During the intermission, Massimo Pacilli stood right downstage center in a black suit and white shirt, doing a funny little old-man sort of dance to goofy cha-cha music, lit from below by a small spot. Eventually the audience settled back in and one by one the 19 or so dancers of the company filled the stage in identical outfits (this time not de-individualizing: go figure!), and doing similar funny on-the-spot idiosyncratic little grooves. The audience was entranced.

There followed a masterful, magical sequence when all the dancers suddenly went from their little gesture-y jerky little dances to a riot of wild swooshing slashing arms and legs simultaneously, like a bunch of fish suddenly jumping out of the water. This lasted a few seconds, and then suddenly (again) the whole stage slipped invisibly into an unpredictable, earthy unison dance. It was breathtaking.

Sometime later, Steve Coutereel, center stage among the dancing bodies, began speaking loudly, posturing as if giving a pompous lecture that no one wanted to hear and demanding attention. The curtain began to fall and came down right on Coutereel as he moved downstage and crumpled to the floor still announcing, someone on the other side of the curtain dragging him off. In the darkness of the theater the rockin' guitars of Dick Hale's version of "Hava Nagila" blasted through space.

Up the curtain and there was a semicircle of chairs, the dancers sitting on them wearing black, brimmed hats like Hasidim. In a wave starting stage left, they rose from their chairs and arched their backs and sat back down, a movement of surrender, of full-bodied exasperation. I noticed how this movement revealed the white of their shirts, making the shirts gleam in the light for a second, but then when the performers sat back down again in their hunch-shouldered posture, all was dark. The performers rising and sitting, a pattern was repeated and elaborated to an electric arrangement of traditional Jewish music, working into a tight unison repetition which included sitting on the floor in front of the chairs, turning heads, and singing words to the song. In contrast to the group, Naharin included solo elements such as one dancer walking slowly behind the semicircle, another always falling down instead of arching, and one standing up on the chair. Eventually the dancers threw their clothes, piece by piece, into the center of the room until they were down to their underpants and tank tops. The men collected the clothes and left, the women did a tender unison line dance, inventive, raw, but precise to a tick-tocking metronome which sounded live.

Thinking over all this now, I feel there is a certain aura of 80s-type performance style to this work. Maybe it's the black suits, which my companion had "Reservoir Dogs" associations to. Am I too clothes-minded tonight? Ha ha ha. I can't quite put my finger on it. For some reason I think of the Japanese live-art collective Dumb Type, which in some ways does similar physical work and it feels much more futuristic. Oh well.

There was an interesting section, that I'd been hearing some buzz about (full disclosure: I teach company class once a week!) where the dancers improvise to voice-overs of themselves answering questions posed by Naharin. They walk in a line going from up to downstage, sweeping from side to side. One at a time they are left by the moving line to do solos to their own voices. They say their names in the voice-overs. It is uncomfortably intimate. There are five or six of these solos. Somewhere in the middle of this sequence, Darren Cherry does a solo with no voice, just some subtle techno sounds.

At times "Minus 16" overflows into more full-on full-out joy to loud club music, the company riffing in simultaneous solos and dropping into unexpected unison. At one point they come down into the audience and pull people up onstage with them; so many precious and uncomfortable moments there, it sort of made me cry.

There was so much to this piece, more than I am able to do justice to at this time. It's exciting to see the type of work that Jim Vincent is bringing to Hubbard St. and very encouraging to witness the audience response -- a standing ovation. Hubbard St. is Chicago's most visible and most indelibly "Chicago" major dance company, and as such is in the forefront of shaping tastes of the dance community and the audience. Vincent's new direction bodes well for contemporary dance as a whole in the city.

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