The latest show from the superb Hubbard Street Dance Chicago had something for all of the senses.
By Merli V. Guerra
Last weekend, the Celebrity Series of Boston presented Hubbard Street Dance Chicago for the fifth time since it first brought the company to Boston in 1985. The evening showcased four works by three noteworthy choreographers, opening with Penny Saunders (who is also a performer with the company), followed by William Forsythe, and ending with two pieces by Crystal Pite. Together, the works successfully spanned an expansive range of emotional, visual, and kinetic content; by the show’s end, viewers were left feeling sensorially satiated.
Saunders’ Out of Keeping presented a colorfully spectral effect, heightened through the intertwined pairings of dancers. Throughout the work, the performers’ costuming — in muted hues of teal, blue, purple, red, and gray — suggested the rainbow effect of a prism. This image became even more apparent when both the set and lighting design were maximized: moments of frontal and side lighting cast large gray shadows across the space’s two white walls; it was as if the dancers onstage were the scattered beams of light emanating from a sun-struck pendant hanging in a window.
Saunders’ choreography is wonderfully complex, a perfect match for a company of this high technical caliber. Accompanied by bittersweet strings and a driving piano, the dancers seemed to skate effortlessly across the floor, a cohesive group breaking into a series of duets that played off one another’s negative space. Perhaps one of the most moving moments of the work was its quietest. After feverishly gathering back into their lit path, the resplendent dancers were gradually released offstage until only a man and woman in gray remained. The ensuing duet was shadowless, the dancers set against the chilly blue of night. The performers resembled wafting cobwebs as they spiraled and hovered in pace with one another. An introspective work that explored the theme of interconnection, Out of Keeping was a strong opening.
The two pieces that followed, while shorter, were masterfully crafted and executed. Forsythe’s N.N.N.N. quickly proved to be the evening’s delightfully quirky comedy, its humor based in a playful exploration of tactile connections. The four dancers appeared to be baffled by their own free-swinging limbs — tucking a hand under an arm to keep it in place, or swinging a leg into someone else’s side in order to generate movement. Wonderfully intricate, N.N.N.N.’s inelegant look at human interaction evoked chuckles from audience members as the group picked up speed, creating ever more elaborate entanglements of limbs. Set to the rhythmic slapping of foot to ground and unified breaths, this piece was perfectly staged on a worklight-lit set whose intimacy enhanced the viewer’s pleasure.
Pite gave us the final two works of the evening, and although the second was elaborate in its scenic construction and conception, the first was arguably the more successful work of the pair. Short and to the point, A Picture of You Falling used its brevity to masterfully expose a fleeting moment of insecurity. As the piece began, the audience heard the voice of a woman: “Look,” she said bluntly in a British accent, “This is you.” A suited man appeared in an oppressive shaft of light. “This is a picture of you falling.” As the work progressed, the man impressively twisted and staggered while trying to pry himself off of the floor. The deconstructive turmoil was seemingly self-inflicted — it was as if he was an old-fashioned toy, the kind whose joints collapsed and then reassembled with the push of a button. This character’s struggle was real; it was am image of fragility that we could all share.
The final work of the evening, while beautifully executed, posed difficulties. Solo Echo utilized falling flakes projected across the back of the stage. When lit, the image sparkled like snowflakes against a winter night’s sky. The effect was striking; it began as only a shifting horizontal band of light, then eventually it broadened to illuminate the entire back wall. The downside to this powerful visual effect was that it was a distraction. For the first part of the piece, the dancers (wearing dull dark gray costumes) were so dimly lit that one’s eyes could not help but wander up to the constant stream of falling flakes. It was not until a momentary pause in the backdrop cascade that our eyes could easily rest on what the performers were doing, and by then it felt a little too late to be noticing the choreography. Still, after that Solo Echo achieved a better balance between set and movement. The choreography sent the dancers gliding across the space, pausing for a moment in which one blessed the others down the line before once again the performers broke into spirited dashes, slides, and collapses, forcibly throwing themselves to the ground. The slow orchestral music that accompanied the work did not hinder the performers’ speed, nor did its calming melody hold them back from mouthing silent screams into the night. Overall, the piece was filled with tension and physicality but, unfortunately, the majesty of its snow-like backdrop ended up making too mesmerizing an impression.
Merli V. Guerra is a professional dancer with a background in ballet, modern, and classical Indian dance in the Odissi style, and an award-winning interdisciplinary artist with talents in choreography, filmmaking, writing, and graphic design. She is co-founder and artistic director of Luminarium Dance Company, art director of Art New England magazine in Boston, and selects The Arts Fuse’s weekly coming attractions for dance.